By Kevin Redding
At a time on Long Island when more and more young people are falling victim to substance abuse and social isolation, the North Shore provides kids of all ages with a secure environment in the form of a not-for-profit, community-based agency geared toward youth and family services, community education and, of course, plenty of fun.
The North Shore Youth Council, based in Rocky Point and formed as a grassroots organization in 1982 by local volunteers working together with the Town of Brookhaven and local school districts, has a presence in each school within the Shoreham-Wading River, Rocky Point, Miller Place and Mount Sinai districts through counseling and programs held before and after school hours.
The agency encourages those entering kindergarten to those in college to stay out of trouble and develop the skills needed to be good, successful adults.
“We provide that safe place for kids to go to,” executive director Janene Gentile said. “[For instance], the afternoon program we have is a place where kids can go instead of going to their empty houses. As we know, youth really get in trouble more during after-school hours. We also provide activities for parents who can’t take their kids to clubs. It’s a special place where people don’t feel intimidated … and kids feel comfortable here.”
She said the NSYC also serves as a full life cycle in that the younger kids in kindergarten who come through the programs often become mentors once they reach middle school and high school.
The agency provides plenty of mentoring and volunteer opportunities that prepare kids for their careers and get them involved in community service, and many of them work in the summer programs offered and continue being involved well into their college years.
Last year, the agency provided about 130 kids with job opportunities.
Miller Place High School senior Treicy Wan, 17, has been involved in the organization since eighth grade and is currently a senior counselor.
“This place really helps to bring you out of your shell, helps you to interact with your community and gives you a sense of being somewhere and being part of something,” Wan said. “I love making the other kids happy, knowing they go through hard times and that I was once there, and now I can be a mentor for them and help make a difference in their lives.”
Gentile, a drug and alcohol counselor by trade, is involved in many of the intervention and prevention programs offered through the organization, including Alateen for those who are coping with problems they didn’t cause and have no control over.
“We’re going through times of hate and discrimination and violence and suicide and substance abuse and we’re going to be here to pick up the pieces and the damages,” Gentile said. “We need to break through that and educate them that this is a safe world. This is a safe place for everyone.”
Among the many other programs offered are Big Buddy Little Buddy, a cross-age mentoring initiative that matches up a high school student with a younger student in an effort to encourage social skill development and help children make friends; Homework Helpers, where high school students volunteer their time to help others who might need extra help with their schoolwork; and School Age Child Care, which provides peace of mind to parents looking for a safe place for their elementary school children.
Dana Ellis, one of the mental health counselors who works predominantly with students with special needs, said the program is good for the Rocky Point community.
“We just want to help people,” she said. “With mental health, it’s tough to get programs started and I think there’s a lot of freedom here to start things, get community feedback and then watch them grow.”
All of the programs are made affordable for low-income families, and every dollar the agency makes goes back to the community through scholarships, which serve to help struggling families pay for things like clothes and books.
NSYCAfter school, the cafeteria at Joseph A. Edgar Intermediate School becomes a giant playground for elementary-aged kids. There’s a crochet club where children can learn to make accessories like earmuffs, full access to tabletop games and Legos, snacks and drinks and an area where kids can do their homework together. As staff pointed out, everybody interacts, and there’s something for every kid.
“We get to play games together and have fun, we do dodgeball in the gym, we work together and learn to be good and honest,” said 10-year-old Christian.
Marcie Wilson, assistant director at NSYC, said one of her fondest memories at the organization was when she attended the once-a-month “open mic night” for middle and high school students, whose singing, dancing and instrument playing blew her away. She said that’s just the tip of the iceberg of what’s available.
“We’re an underused resource in this community,” Wilson said. “We’re just trying to get the word out to let people know we’re there.”