Center offers young people a lively haven from the streets

The young people of New York who come to The Door regard it as "their place." It is a place, they say, for finding help, making friends, getting involved. Located in a cavernous former department store at 618 Avenue of the Americas, The Door calls itself "A Center of Alternatives" -- alternatives to loneliness, street crime, drug addiction, family tensions, school and learning problems, teen pregnancy, and delinquency.

In 1972, half a dozen idealistic young professionals from various fields felt there had to be a better and more humane way to help disadvantaged young people meet the challenges of growing up in the city. The multiservice center they set up to meet that need is one project of the International Center for Integrative Studies. The group deals with all aspects of troubled adolescent lives, including health, talents, recreation, development potential, education, family planning, employment, and crisis intervention.

About 2,200 young people of different ethnic and racial backgrounds come through the door each month, Mondays through Fridays, to find a haven, counseling, creative workshops, a performing arts program, a sense of peace -- and often a good hot meal.

While most of the participants come as a result of enthusiastic recommendations from their friends, about 35 percent are referred by schools, courts, hospitals, and other service agencies.

"Kids come here who have never had to make commitments to anyone or anything, " said development director Ellen Massey as we toured the quarters. "Many have never learned to discipline themselves or take charge of their time or their lives. Many of them have simply been waiting for a chance and a little encouragement. We give them confidence and improve their self-esteem."

The Door's successes continue to pile up. I visited recently just after the farewell party for a young black girl who was leaving to enter the Einstein School of Medicine. When she came to The Door five years ago she was a school drop-out, depressed, and on drugs. The center helped her to give up drugs and to go back to high school to earn her diploma. She then worked as a peer group counselor at The Door while she went to college at night. Recently she won the scholarship to enter medical school. Like many others, she credits The Door with the turnaround in her life.

Two other youngsters who had worked out regularly in the dance studio were recently accepted into the Alvin Ailey dance company.

Today The Door has 105 paid staff members, as well as 90 volunteers, to administer its wide-ranging program of services. These include artists, craftsmen, lawyers, social workers, career counselors, teachers, nutritionists, actors, dancers, and psychiatrists.

All services are free. No parental consent is required. Confidently and trust between young people and those who help them are prime considerations. Only after they truly trust, says Dr. James Turanski, the director, will these young people between 12 and 21 reveal what is on their minds and what their true needs are.

Many young people learn pottery or jewelry or furnituremaking. Some study sculpture, graphics, photography, sewing, and weaving. Many seek out the sports program in the gym, or the chance to stage dramatic productions or dance programs in the little theater. On a busy day the noise emitting from all the activity areas is resounding.

The Door offers other services as well. Runaways find shelter, food, and clothing here. A learning center with a library attached provides individual tutoring and small workshops in such basic skills as reading, writing, and math, as well as other courses. A career counseling service gives guidance, helps locate jobs, guides young people into the right academic or vocational schools, and arranges apprenticeships.

Those who need legal and medical help can find that, too. And for those youngsters interested in nature, there are weekend programs of camping and hiking where they are taught about ecology, biology, and woodlore.

The Door has had support from city, state, and federal sources. With slackening of federal funds this year, the management is looking for more personal and corporate contributors, as well as to grants from foundations, to meet its over $2 million annual budget. Although it was cited by the Health, Education, and Welfare department in Washington, D.C. as the model of a "comprehensive program that cuts across the various problems plaguing teen-agers today," its adequate funding remains a source of concern. The director is working out a more cost-effective operation, but hours are being shortened, and the staff and services are being reduced.

Despite these challenges, the center continues to open doors to learning and wellbeing.

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