The adolescent years are big years for change in a child’s life. So perhaps it’s no surprise that for Trackside Teen Center, Wilton’s facility for that age group, there are some changes happening in its life as well. Now at 17 years old, Trackside is getting older, wiser and a little more focused. Prime among the changes is a new team at the helm, led by Cindy Moser as director of operations, and John Priest, as program director. They replaced longtime executive director Mark Ketley, who retired at the end of 2018.

As a much-liked 6th grade teacher at Wilton’s Middlebrook School, Priest is a familiar face to many of Trackside’s target audience, Wilton’s middle schoolers and high school students, as well as their parents. “We do call John the Pied Piper,” Moser laughs.

The duo were both very involved with Trackside as members of the Board of Directors, but with Ketley’s departure, bringing them in to job share was a more affordable way to run the center. Moser’s corporate background compliments Priest’s creative, student-connected side.

“Coming off the board, we’ve had some pretty good views and ideas of what the place could use and what we could do with it for at least a year, and now it’s kind-of fun to be a little more hands-on and get in there and start to bring some of those ideas to life,” Moser adds.

They are both running full-steam ahead with ideas for new programs, efforts to freshen up the facilities, bring in new revenue and raise awareness. Even increasing Trackside’s presence on social media is an effort to make noise in order to try to reinvigorate and remind people about what’s happening there.

In just the last three months, there has been a sharp uptick in the number of programs Trackside is running, from movie nights, to gaming competitions and opportunities,

Both Moser and Priest are laser-focused on getting kids’ input on new ideas. Priest has made the environment just right for a student governing board and has recruited both Middlebrook and Wilton High School students to contribute ideas on everything from what food to offer in the cafe to whether or not kids will come to an open mic night.

“It’s a balance between saying, ‘Here’s a couple ideas,’ but wanting them to really own it and grow it. Because if adults handle it too much, you know it will stop,” he says.

Fundraising Now More Crucial than Before

But Moser and Priest say getting the kids in the door is only part of their job description. The other half is making sure the doors can stay open–and that involves fundraising. The need for strengthening Trackside’s financial situation has increased sharply over the last couple of years, as town officials have sought to change how the facility is funded–taking steps to wean the organization off town funding and to become more self-sufficient.

“We’ve lost about 40% of our funding over the last couple of years,” says Artie DiRocco, who helms Trackside’s Board of Directors. He hopes that more residents will look to support the organization both for what it offers teens as well as what it gives to the town in general.

“Trackside is open every day. Bus seven stops at Trackside. We’re open every day to every teen or preteen that shows up. We have multiple adults there after school, whether there’s formal program or informal programs. We have a room where we encourage kids to do their homework. It’s a free facility to people who need it. If you’re a single parent, or two working parents, it’s a pretty good line item to not have in your budget,” he says.

Beyond the many programs for younger residents, Trackside offers a very unique and affordable space for community organizations and private rentals–something DiRocco wants residents to see the value of as well.

“They love Wilton Rocks. What a great thing. We donate our space for that. We don’t make any money off of that. We donate to some of the sports teams and let them have their parties there. We’re not a for-profit organization. Our goal is to come out a little bit ahead every year. We own building maintenance. It’s not exactly a new building. Roofs leak and doorknobs break and refrigerators break, refrigerators break multiple times,” he says.

In addition to donations, Moser hopes Wilton residents will consider Trackside as a place to rent for private events. That’s one way to build the center’s income.

“We’re the only place in town as far as we know with facility the size we have. You can get littler and you can get bigger, but if you want to host 100 people for a luncheon or 50 people for a luncheon and not feel like you’re cramped or in a vacuum, we’ve got the space and place. If we can’t keep our doors open, keep the building up, yeah the town loses that as a valuable resource,” she says.

A resource that local community and civic groups that are also non-profits can often access at little-to-no cost. “If they’re here during the day when I’m here anyway, the place is free,” says Moser. “There might be a staffing charge if we need to open the kitchen, if we need to use the sound board. We’ve got to bring someone in to help with those things, there may be a small staffing fee, but you can’t beat it.”

Finding funding has become more critical.

“We’ve had lean years. In a lot of ways we’ve been able to keep the doors open and the building open, but things like our capital fund have taken a hit. We haven’t put a dime in our capital fund in over five years. I walk in praying we don’t have any catastrophic repairs,” says Moser. “When the town’s been cutting us, we’ve replaced some of it through cuts or through staffing changes and throwing an extra fundraiser here or there. But there’s just been enough to keep us breaking even.”

The team is increasingly relying on fundraisers.

“The annual appeal is huge. Our fundraising events are huge, there’s going to be a lot more of them this year. We’re going to look to do different kinds, trying to look to reinventing the parents night out type of idea. Mom sometimes, dad sometimes, both sometimes, family night out type ideas. And of course we’re going to bring the Food Truck Festival back.

Trackside also welcomes in-kind gifts, and maintains a wishlist on its website. And ultimately, say Moser and Priest, everything comes down to Trackside’s mission of helping Wilton’s teens and tweens.

“If we can put our money towards the facility and don’t have to put our money towards TVs and couches and updating the lighting and things like that, we can be more attractive for the teens. We can be more attractive for events. We can raise the appeal of the space through a lot of in kind donations that then allows us to use our funds on the teens, creating new programs and keeping the building up and repaired.”