Like many non-profit organizations, the COVID-19 pandemic threw a wrench in operations and plans for Trackside Teen Center. With the school year underway and state restrictions loosening up a bit, Trackside’s leadership has reconfigured how the program will move forward while still being able to fulfill its mission of providing a place where teens can build social relationships and have fun in a safe, alcohol and drug-free environment.

In a Q&A below, program director John Priest provided GOOD Morning Wilton with some insight into the changes that are being made and why Trackside’s board of directors has opted to steer the organization in a modified direction. Most notably Trackside is transitioning to a paid, membership-only model–a significant change for a place that had always been structured as a spot where teens could drop in.

People need to know that we never give up on teens and this community.

–John Priest, Trackside Teen Center Program Director

That doesn’t mean that Trackside’s new program design won’t provide as many options for Wilton’s teens–Priest says it’s actually the opposite:  Trackside will continue to offer middle- and high school students a diverse mix of programs and activities–both virtually and in-person–and the organization will strengthen its “For Teens, By Teens” motto, with many of the programs being run by Wilton High School students.

Program start dates roll out between Sept. 30 and Nov. 2, with most starting up the week of Oct. 19. Families can visit for two remaining Open House sessions, on Tuesday, Sept. 29, and Thursday, Oct. 1, from 4-6 p.m. on both days (reservations are required and available every 20 minutes).

Priest and Trackside’s development and operations director Cindy Moser, made a video (along with some of the teens involved in Trackside’s programs) that gives a look at the “new” Trackside. That video appears at the end of Priest’s Q&A:

GOOD Morning Wilton:  Why is Trackside moving to a membership model?

John Priest:  For a few years now the Trackside board of directors has discussed the idea of a membership model. Raising funds to support programs for teens is always a challenge, but a membership model did not fit with the vision and mission of Trackside for that time and under the current offerings.

When the world went into isolation last spring, everyone’s lives were upended and Trackside took some time off to develop an online platform to connect teens to games and events like our Star Wars movie night, Office Party, and Smashbrothers Tournaments (gaming). Soon after, we designed a live summer program with small outdoor camps for teens that ran weekly for six weeks. Our sports camp, hiking camp, running club, and art camp were a hit, but more importantly, they provided us with a model for what may be needed come Fall 2020–small clubs that could adhere to COVID protocols.

Our summer camp motto was, “Safe, small, and fun for all,” and at the close of the summer, we proposed to and worked in conjunction with our board of directors to offer a similar structure for teens this fall. The goal was to design a membership model that would allow for predictable and controlled numbers, was affordable enough to allow families to enroll in clubs, and would provide options to families that may utilize Trackside frequently.

GMW:  Does that mean teens can no longer drop in?

Priest:  The membership model does change the “drop-in” status of Trackside. What also changes is the richness of each day’s activities. In the past, Trackside had one or two clubs throughout the week that kids could sign up for and participate in. This fall we have 13 clubs running, most live and a few virtual, each week! What excites me more than anything is how much I have been able to involve our high school teens and young adults in this new model. Currently, we have 17 high school, college, and young adults running clubs or working as staff at Trackside. Their involvement also brings new ideas and ownership to a place that is meant for and belongs to them.

GMW:  What is included in a membership?

Priest:  There are a few memberships available. The basic membership for kids grades 6-12 is $25 for the year. This allows students to join our listed clubs, participate in our evening events and programs, and register for any “free to members” activities like an upcoming “Tales and Trails” weekend hiking event on our trails here in town. The program fees first help to cover the increased staffing costs associated with running programs for small groups and then also help us to cover some of the funding shortfalls we are experiencing from other places as we have shared.

There is a high school and middle school Premium membership that offers 50% discounts on club fees, early registration, monthly cafe cash, and a few other perks. Fees are different based on if you pay for the year or by semester but can be found on Trackside’s website.

GMW:  How has the COVID situation impacted Trackside–financially, like a lot of other non-profits, I imagine Trackside has had a difficult time with traditional revenue sources. How significant has that been for Trackside?

Priest:  We are certainly faced with financial challenges as a result of COVID-19 and have also embraced the opportunity to think about our program and services differently. Modifying our facility, staffing needs, and service design as a result of COVID-19 has resulted in thousands of dollars of added expenses this year.

Our revenue from private rental events and from the funding we had anticipated receiving from the town are both down significantly as a result of COVID-19. We were also unable to run our two largest community fundraising events this year, our Swing for the Teens Golf Outing and the Wilton Food Truck Festival. We haven’t rested though and have been able to bring in some funds though two virtual fundraising campaigns which ran in March and May and the Wilton Shines Bright fundraiser where we raised funds for Trackside while bringing smiles to over 150 Wilton families and businesses in a safe manner in May and June. We are working on some new fundraising ideas for the Fall, Winter, and Spring.

GMW:  The program model has shifted too…with teen mentors and more older teens involved in leadership. Describe this and tell why you did this?

Priest:  “For teens, by teens” was a Trackside motto before I began working with Trackside a few years ago. Last year, before our shut down, I had recruited about 10 high school students who regularly were working the cafe at Trackside, running a few evening events, or leading some clubs. It felt like we were headed in the right direction.

As I mentioned earlier, one silver lining in this whole pandemic mess was feeling compelled to provide some live summer programs for our teens. We did this with the help of our high school and college kids, most of which I’ve known since they were in middle school. It is incredibly rewarding, for me, to see these kids step up and become a huge part of the success of this center. They are insanely talented and capable and oftentimes just need a space to create. I think of Trackside as that foundation for our older teens to build on. More than half of this fall’s clubs are ideas they came to me with.

GMW:  In the era of COVID, knowing how the schools have become distant, programs are more limited, there have been countless ways this has impacted teenagers, why is it important for people to think of Trackside–for participation, for donations/support, and for any other reason?

Priest:  From the first few weeks of the shut-down Trackside maintained a virtual connection with many of our kids. We used Discord to create a space for activities and events. Personally I’m a “live” kind of guy. That’s why I took to dressing up as Darth Vader and dropped “Imperial Party Packages” off at teens doorsteps for our Star Wars night. That stuff is really fun and it’s really important to kids, especially during this mess. It’s why we jumped through insane hoops to get a live summer program together when a lot of places did not. It is why we are offering most of our clubs and events live with a priority to being outside and using safe health guidelines when we use the inside of Trackside.

People need to know that we never give up on teens and this community. Despite major cuts to funding we continue to design things for our kids and our community. People should also know that no student will be turned away due to financial reasons, as it says on our site. Donations are tremendous, but nothing would make us happier than to have families become members and for them to enjoy Trackside’s programs.