She is one of more than 75 kids frequenting this tiny, off-the-beaten-path kids’ community center nearby the Kingston Library. Recently, Samaiya got the chance to get her little hands extra busy digging in the dirt, helping to create the center’s newest colorful addition to the otherwise ill-reputed neighborhood — a kids’ flower and veggie patch.
The center, named for the civil rights leader, community activist and longtime Ulster County NAACP president who passed away in 1991, is the anchor for a confluence of community programs and agencies to offer services. Family of Woodstock’s Youth Employment program, Crisis Counseling case managers and homeless services, the Kingston City School District’s GED program, SUNY Ulster’s Basic Communications course, ESL classes and more all have a home at the Hodge Center. Sandra Thompson-Hopgood is the outreach coordinator.
A group of roughly 10 at-risk neighborhood kids, some of whom have spent time in jail, and Family of Woodstock’s Kingston Cares program director Megan Weiss just completed the transformation of a 12-square-foot patch of lawn into a garden bed filled with dreams and lessons, consisting of flowers and vegetables. Last year, Weiss had a group of kids draw “their perfect garden oasis,” and based the color of the flowers planted on that which the kids depicted in their drawings. Perennials and annuals such as cone flowers, geraniums, tiger lilies, petunias, violets, marigolds and a butterfly bush surround carefully-placed rows of collard greens, green beans, spinach and cucumbers —all earmarked for a fall harvest cookout and probable soup pots. The kids delivered the left-over flowers to neighbors next to the center.
The garden’s flurry of colors is neatly contained behind a white picket fence gifted and installed by the Bruderhof community one early Saturday morning. The teens sanded and painted the fence, for which Weiss’ own sister, Laurie Berrios, painted a floral decorative sign. “We wanted to make it appear a most welcoming, safe place to be, which is our priority,” said Weiss.
The group of industrious gardening teens, most of whom were placed there through the Youth Employment program, admitted they had never before worked on a garden or planted flowers. “It feels good to do good,” said Mike Herman, 20, a two-year employee of the center who was initially placed through the Youth Employment program, but now studies computer science at SUNY Ulster and works at the center through a work-study program. Herman said that when he is out in the garden or working at the center and his peers walk by gesturing as only 20-year-old boys can do, it doesn’t faze him. “At the end of the day it’s a job, it doesn’t matter what people think,” Herman said. “It feels good to do something positive while they are in the street. Maybe people will be helped by knowing that it’s here.”
In the summer, the center is open from 9 a.m.-6 p.m., with later hours on Fridays extending to 9. The center is used by Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous programs on the weekends. The center sees about five to 25 kids after school daily, where those kids are able to come into a safe haven, have a snack, get some homework help and hang out. The teens interning at the Hodge center are trained to be youth counselors, able to recognize and report crisis and bullying, and offer homework help as well. It’s a challenge, however, when the kids interning inevitably see their own visiting peers or friends in trouble, and are required to reach out about it. “I see friends from outside, and I know what they do out there, but in here there are rules they have to follow,” explained a beautiful baby-faced mother of two, Danielle Cordero, 20. “They’re bad and running around doing stupid stuff, but at least when they come here, they are productive.” Cordero was one of the garden’s hugest enthusiasts, and said she was eager to witness how the veggies grow and produce. “I think more kids should come here. If they read some excitement about the garden, maybe it will excite them to come here.”
The kids and Weiss have ranging theories on how kids wind up in at-risk situations. “There’s no such thing as a bad kid or a good kid; just positive and negative behaviors.” While some kids didn’t agree with that philosophy, most agreed that many troubled teens are not always at fault, and are “raised in bad households.”
“No matter the lifestyle someone was brought into, that child can be changed in a good way,” said Ashley Wilson, 17. “This place changed me a lot — having responsibilities. I used to stay home and smoke weed. Now I have a responsibility to come to work and make a good example for other kids.” Ashley is currently in the GED program with Cordero.
Even 10-year-old Samaiya agreed. “All the kids here learn something new, rather than getting put into [juvenile detention]. They can come here. The Hodge center told me to always come here,” she emphasized.
Raphael Edwards, 17, said a lot of the kids who come to the Hodge so because they cannot afford to go to the Kingston Y. He said that he would like to see the Hodge center grow into something larger like the Y, and add basketball courts, a game room, and most importantly a safe place for younger kids as well by adding separate areas for younger and older kids, “so that we could keep an eye on the younger kids.” John Snyder, 18, an aspiring musician, said that his dream for the center would be to see a recording studio in place. Samaiya thought that an in-ground pool, massage spa, an animal shelter and Christmas reindeers on the rooftop would be a nice place to start, though she would settle for some more computers for now.
The Hodge Center, at 15 Franklin St., is a drop-in center with no special invitation or registration required. Call (845) 339-9050 for more information.