In the heart of Watertown, there’s a haven for north country youths in the form of the SoZo Teen Center; a drop-in center that serves teens in grades 7-12 from 2:30 to 8 p.m. Monday to Friday. A vital part of the community, the center provides a safe and supportive environment for young people to grow and thrive and is funded in part by the United Way of Northern New York in the interest of nurturing future generations.
The center offers a variety of programs that focus on health and wellness, academics, life skills, and civic engagement. It’s a place where kids can feel safe, have fun, and develop healthy habits. Melissa Shova, the Preventative Services Manager for the Children’s Home of Jefferson County, helps run the SoZo Teen Center. She says that the center’s main goal is to create a safe space for young people to come and have positive, pro-social interactions with their peers. Kids can come in just to say a quick hello and grab a nutritious snack, stay for dinner, or stay four or five hours – the entirety of when the center is open.
The center is equipped with free Wi-Fi, computers, and staff available for homework assistance. The center also offers regular fun activities geared toward teamwork, sportsmanship, and improved health and wellness. One of the most significant benefits of the center is that it provides a supportive environment for teens to connect with others. As Melissa explains, “This really is a safe place for a lot of our kiddos. If they didn’t have this base, they wouldn’t have a safe, positive place to have an outlet with their friends. I really think giving them a structured space to be able to come is really important.”
The SoZo Teen Center is more than just a hangout spot. It’s a place where young people can learn important life skills, develop healthy habits, and participate in community service. One of the ways the center does this is by partnering with other organizations in the community, such as Cornell, Pivot, Planned Parenthood, and the local library.
The center also offers opportunities for kids to learn new skills, such as cooking and crafting. On Mondays and Thursdays, Chef Manning comes and provides dinner. The kids can help warm things up and they’re always welcome to serve and cook alongside staff. Melissa says, “Our kiddos right now are really big crafters and artists, so a lot of our activities have some sort of craft or art component.”
Jason Miles is one of the center’s success stories. He first came to the SoZo Teen Center six years ago with his older brother, and he’s been coming back ever since. He’s 18 now and has been volunteering as needed. Employed at Walmart and transitioning into a leadership role there, Jason said he believes the skills gained from his time with the center as a youth have helped him get to where he is today.
The center has become a second home for many kids, and some see those within its walls as their extended family. Melissa recalled a couple of deaths in some the teens’ lives, and the day they found out about them, they came to the center because it was their safe space. She says, “when you think a parent passes, you think, ‘Oh, they’re going to want to be with their family.’ Well, they think of us as their family.”
Despite the center’s importance to the community, it operates solely under grant-funded money, and the Children’s Home of Jefferson County takes a loss in operating the center because it’s not revenue-generating. The center needs grants and support from the community to keep it open and safe for the kids. The United Way funding is a significant source of support for the center, as it will help the center revamp furnishings and help create a pro-social lounge that will attract kids and make them feel appreciated.
“We’re so grateful for the support of the United Way – it’s imperative to keep something like this open and safe and active for the kiddos, so we really need grants and support from our community.”
The center has an average of 15 to 20 kids every night, and in 2022, it saw 229 unique kiddos. It’s clear that the SoZo Teen Center is a vital part of the community, offering a brighter future for the next generation. Every contribution, big or small, makes a significant difference in the lives of the children and families who rely on the center’s services. Without the generosity and commitment of donors and volunteers, the center’s success would not be possible.
With the support of the United Way and other donors, the center can continue to be a safe and productive space for local youth to become healthy and productive adults.
United, we can nurture future generations and invest in their success.