The Barn still offers a judgment-free zone

The no-program, just hang out, come-as-you-are, be-who-you-are vibe of The Barn is still thriving, kids who go there say, nearly two years after the teen center’s operations were taken over by the Boys & Girls Club.

“It’s very open and accepting. You meet all sorts of different people here,” said Paul Standish, 19. “You feel comfortable expressing who you are.”

“This is a place I feel safe crying, if I need to cry,” said Garrett Levine, 18. “Or just blowing off steam playing Smash.”

Garrett, Paul and three other guys were at The Barn, playing Mario Smash Brothers on one of its two video game setups, Thursday, April 26.

Garrett’s a Ridgefield High School senior, and Paul goes to WestConn, having graduated from RHS in 2016.

“The Barn’s a place for kids to go and just hang out,” said John Ifert-Miller, 23, a 2014 RHS grad who now works at The Barn. “You can relax with people who are going through the same thing.”

“It’s a place where you can just talk to people and be social,” said Dylan Davis, 17. “Even if it’s not productive, you’re not just at home, doing nothing.

“Personally, it helped me get used to this town, because I moved here,” said Dylan, an RHS junior.

“It helps with just social interaction, and gives me a place to hang out,” he said. “It’s someplace I can fall back on.”

Chase Ainley, 17, an RHS senior, said he’s been going to The Barn for three years.

“Usually every day — maybe except Mondays, because nobody’s here. But Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays,” Chase said.

“It’s a nice place to hang out — it’s got nice people — play some video games, that kind of stuff.”

“It’s a ‘no-judgment’ zone,” said Alyce Rae, a mom-aged adult who was on duty last Thursday.

Selectmen’s talk

The Barn was discussed by the Board of Selectmen on Wednesday, April 18, with a focus on how it has fared since August 2016, when management was transferred from the town to the Ridgefield Boys & Girls Club.

“2017 has been a great year,” Boys & Girls Club executive director Michael Flynn told the selectmen.

Membership at The Barn increased from 86 in 2016 to 97 in 2017 — up about 10%, Flynn said.

“That happens naturally with the kids and environment and the culture,” he said.

But The Barn’s success isn’t easily translated into numbers.

“It’s not something solely measured by growth,” he said.

Flynn said The Barn’s director works well with the teens.

“Jeff Bonistalli has really developed into a key leader and mentor,” Flynn said. “[He] has a great rapport with that age group.”

At this year’s Boys & Girls Club awards banquet, where the club’s Youth of the Year is announced, an award was added for Barn Citizen of the Year.

And three Barn members had joined the club’s leadership program, Flynn said.

The Barn kids are teens — and that’s often not an easy time.

“The kids I’ve gotten to know, there’s several with pretty tough stories,” Flynn told the selectmen.

But The Barn is there for the kids, giving them a place they can go, feel comfortable, see friends, and have contact with supportive adults.

“We want to connect with these young people and make sure they feel valued,” Flynn said. “I think day to day the staff does a great job making sure the kids belong, and are recognized.”

First Selectman Rudy Marconi recalled the emotional board meetings at the time of the transfer.

“The major issue was to be sure we preserve the environment of The Barn,” Marconi said.

“We’ve done that,” Flynn said. “The teen center has retained its culture.”

“Have we lost anyone who’s said, ‘This is not what The Barn was — I’m out of here’?” Marconi asked.

“We haven’t lost anyone,” Flynn said.

“Is there a lot of vaping going on outside The Barn?” asked Selectwoman Barbara Manners.

“We have not seen any vaping, tobacco use. It’s prohibited,” Flynn said. “If there’s kids involved in that — there’s a respect level there, it’s nothing we see. …

“It’s a drug-free, tobacco-free facility,” Flynn said.

The Barn is open four days a week after school, and five days a week during the summer. Staffing at The Barn usually runs from two to four people on duty.

“In that age group, certainly you want to have a minimum of two,” Flynn said.

But it’s less of a hands-on atmosphere than the Boys & Girls Club.

“It’s that drop-in culture,” Flynn said. “They’re able to sign in, and sign out.”

There are occasional organized activities — bowling and beach trips, a couple of nature hikes, and “lock-ins,” or supervised all nighters.

“The lock-ins are very popular,” Flynn said. “Generally everyone stays up all night.”

Barn membership is $5 a month.

At the time of the transfer to Boys & Girls Club management, the selectmen agreed that the $65,000 a year it had been spending on Barn operations would go to the club — it’s now in the community grants part of the town budget.

A week after Flynn’s appearance before the board, Marconi told The Press he was optimistic about The Barn.

“I think it’s been a very successful transition,” he said. “Not hearing from any of our youth about pluses or minuses or The Barn, to me, is an approval. I know it’s open more than it ever was before, which was one of the requests, during our hearings, from the youth of our town.

“I think Jeff Bonistalli with his leadership has done an absolutely excellent job, maintaining the environment of The Barn as requested by the youth of Ridgefield.”