I think we can all agree that every child in America should have an opportunity to be successful. Unfortunately, millions of children and adolescents experience three or more adversities (homelessness, domestic violence, physical abuse, etc.) before the age of 18 and, consequently, are much more likely to drop out of school, engage in risky behaviors and form unhealthy relationships as adults. In other words, their opportunities for success are severely hampered before they ever reach adulthood.

Here at Women’s Services, we have an ambitious vision for our community; no violence, especially Intimate Partner Violence (IPV). IPV affects millions of people in the United States every year. Its impact is experienced locally too.

Sadly, our shelter is always full, calls to our hotline pour in every day and the number of victims petitioning the courts for protection orders has risen significantly in recent months. Intimate Partner Violence is not going away; not globally, not locally. Its impact is felt by everyone, including our youth.

So how do we put an end to this pervasive form of violence? First of all, we recognize that IPV is preventable. Second, we enhance effective practice and prioritize prevention efforts. Third, we promote collaboration with others who call Crawford County “home” and who share our vision for violence-free communities.

We do this by connecting with people, businesses and organizations that recognize the importance of placing supportive adults in the presence of youth. We actively seek out others who support our efforts to build strong, interconnected communities that embrace and elevate our youth. Supportive neighborhoods and positive role models mitigate the negative impact of violence on youth. It’s that simple.

One of the organizations working hard to build a stronger community is the Meadville Neighborhood Center (MNC). They recognize the power of collective visioning to strengthen the connections between people and the places we share. One of its projects, the Meadville Area Teen Lounge, is a prime example of this collective visioning and place-making.

Back in October 2018, The Meadville Tribune ran an article on the Teen Lounge. One of the teens instrumental in getting the Teen Lounge off the ground is Kaitlyn Davis-Bonilla, who noted in the article, "From the beginning, the goal has always been to have a safe space for area teens to come and just relax, enjoy their time, not be worried about whether they’re safe or not and feel support from their peers.” In the six months since its opening, the Teen Lounge has been exactly that.

MNC board member Brenda Chien observed, "I’ve been impacted personally by how much this place is indeed providing a needed sanctuary for many of our youth. Every time I spend time volunteering there as an ally, I meet (or re-connect) with a teen who is hurting and feeling broken.”

When we have people in our lives who support us, encourage us and allow us to fail and make mistakes without judgment, we learn a set of behaviors and attitudes that see us through hard times. It’s called “resilience.”

Adolescents who frequent the Teen Lounge are developing a more resilient nature through the connections forged by their participation in this project. Almost all of them talk about the social aspects of the meeting place and how important the space is to them. There is an overarching sense of safety and acceptance inside the doors of the lounge, and the teens speak proudly of this environment.

Also, the Teen Lounge gives young people opportunities to explore new activities and interests. The lounge was recently awarded a grant through the Crawford Heritage Community Foundation to purchase a 3D printer. The teens are excited about all of the possibilities this new endeavor can provide.

Some of the teens have an idea to start a weekly baking group and then selling their baked goods at the Second Saturday Community Market events. This activity could involve teens in baking, marketing and sales activities where they could learn valuable life lessons and business skills.

When young people establish connections with others, they build core competencies around their fledgling strengths and reduce the negative impact stressors have on their feelings of self-worth and self-confidence. When community members support initiatives like the Teen Lounge, these connections are strengthened further and factors of resilience are multiplied over again. And when organizations, schools, churches, businesses and government entities work together toward a shared vision for a healthy and more resilient community, they are building the beloved community envisioned by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; a society based on justice, equal opportunity and love of one’s fellow human beings.

If you believe that every child deserves an opportunity for success then every adult has an obligation to make it happen for them. Together, let’s give our youth the healthy start in life they deserve.

Bruce Harlan is executive director of Meadville-based Women’s Services Inc. Women’s Services has been providing hope and resources to victims of violence and advocating to end it since 1977. For more information, visit womensservicesinc.org.

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