Tony Cotroneo has all the letters that date back more than a decade. He’s kept them in black boxes or binders for safe keeping. They keep piling up as the years pass.
“They say it takes one person to make a difference,” reads one, addressed to Tony and Brian Patel, both long-time youth workers at the Greg Moore Youth Centre.
“I owe my life to you two,” the letter continues.
The writer describes a life of drugs, alcohol, hanging out the with the wrong crowd and suicide attempts.
Then the writer came to the youth centre and met Tony and Brian and saw the love they dish out every day to whoever walks through the doors when it opens every week night at 6 p.m.
The letter goes on to say he or she kicked drugs. Self-esteem was gained and the writer thanks the pair for offering choices.
You’re now my friends and family, the writer says, “like two annoying brothers.”
Cotroneo has dozens of such letters that he’s received over the years, as do all of the staff at the Greg Moore Youth Centre, which opened 15 years ago.
“It comes in different shapes and forms. They thank you in letters. They thank you in Christmas cards. There are so many things.”
And they’re all tucked away in what he calls his “inspiration file.”
Cotroneo isn’t at the centre every day now, but still treasures the letters.
“They still stir so many emotions.”
Although he’s now youth recreation manager for the City of Maple Ridge, the youth centre remains his main focus. He can recall all of the people who wrote the letters and often encounters them in daily life.
“It’s the most important part of my life, other than my kids.”
The letters are powerful because people thank the staff for saving their lives.
But Cotroneo would rather look at it another way. Those people saved themselves. All the folks at the youth centre did was open doors or show them options.
Cotroneo was there from Day 1, in Oct. 13, 2001, when then-mayor Al Hogarth and council opened the building in Memorial Peace Park named in honour of Maple Ridge race car driver Greg Moore, who was killed in a racing accident on Oct. 31, 1999.
Most nights since then, the centre has opened its doors at 6 p.m., staying open until 9:30 p.m., serving as a place where kids from 13 to 18 years old can skateboard, play ball hockey or indoor soccer, or climb the indoor rock wall.
The centre received the B.C. Parks and Recreation Association facility excellence award in 2011.
While its main function is as a recreation centre, it functions as much as a reception centre.
Skilled youth workers are there to help organize a game of pickup hoops, but they’re also on the lookout for kids who are lost, struggling and need help.
That’s the mission of any city facility, whether it be a drop-in centre or swimming pool or sports field. Staff must know to help those who walk through the doors with more complicated needs.
“It’s our responsibility to respond,” Cotroneo says.
“We’re all part of the community and our goal, literally, is to make sure they get through the moment they’re in – and connect them to the right people in the community.
“We are the proverbial Band-Aid that will get them through to tomorrow.”
Whereas a teen might not feel comfortable taking a first step to talk to a counsellor to help with their issues, being gently guided there by someone who’s lofting them a pass on the basketball court is a bit easier.
“When you can connect a youth to someone by name, versus their role … it makes a big difference,” said youth programmer Meghan MacMillan.
“We’re always relationships first.”
Through those relationships, they can learn what a teen needs in her or his life. Recreation is the tool to connect with kids, she explained.
And when staff are able to provide the help that kids need, or learn that somehow they made a difference – that feeling never goes away.
“You just know you’re doing the right thing. You see things getting paid forward,” says Cotroneo.
He adds that the youth centre remains unique in Metro Vancouver for the amount of physical space that is allocated for youth sports.
“It’s a place for youth to be active,” he adds. “No community has a youth centre like this.”
He wrote online, the Greg Moore Youth Centre is a place of connection and hope, of belonging and peace.
“And more than anything else, one of love and understanding.”