It is a testament to the authenticity and devotion of the staff at Our Place – a group of drop-in centers in Flatbush that cater to what most people would simply term “at-risk” teens – that none of them wanted to be mentioned by name in this article. In fact, the majority of them were even cautious about speaking with a reporter, so protective are they of their children, whom they consider very nearly their own.
But word must be spread about the amazing work Our Place is doing, because nobody else is doing their unique brand of outreach to troubled teens. There may be a lot of organizations that were created to help pull kids back from the brink of self-destruction, but there is no place that does so as non-judgmentally as Our Place.
“Our philosophy is to be the best ‘number two’ out there,” explains Jack (a pseudonym for one of Our Place’s administrators), “because the streets will be number one. We can’t compete with the cheap thrills that life offers, if that’s what kids are determined to experience, but we can make sure that we offer a safe place when those kids come looking for a little understanding.”
To that end, Our Place is an uninhibited environment where kids can speak their minds and share their frustrations – freely and with unedited language. They can do nothing more than lounge on the worn couches and watch the big-screen TV at the corner of the room, shoot some pool or merely eat the free food that is on hand every night. There are certainly ground rules – no dealing drugs or drinking alcohol on the premises, for instance – but otherwise, Our Place pretty much allows teens to do what they want, and if they wish, to speak about their challenges and frustrations with trained therapists and social workers who are on-site. Once the teens see that nobody is trying to judge them or force them to take on things they’re not ready for, they’re often much more inclined to talk to a professional – and listen to what he or she has to say.
It was 12 years ago, in light of the revealing Jewish Observer article on kids at risk in the community, that several Brooklynaskanim were trying to convince Moshe Binick, of Moishe’s Supermarket and KRM Kollel, to lend a hand in creating a safe haven for at-risk teens in Flatbush. Binick was hesitant to believe that his neighborhood’s Jewish community had such a problem in its midst, when in a fortuitous twist of fate, two obviously frum teens walked by at that moment, one passing a joint (marijuana) over to the other. Our Place was born a few weeks later, and has existed over time thanks to fairly substantial governmental support as well as some private donations.
One of Our Place’s most prominent supporters is New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who calls what Our Place does “literally life-saving work.”
“In the past decade, I’ve had the zechus to be a messenger to help Our Place do incredible things,” said Hikind. “I’ve seen kids literally turn their lives around thanks to the extreme dedication of the staff.”
It’s a staff that includes Hikind’s son Yoni, who’s been involved with the center ever since he graduated social work school a few years ago. Hikind calls Yoni a gift from Hashem and the most non-judgmental person he’s ever met.
“His real talent for complete love and acceptance comes not from something he learned at school, but from being the kind of person who naturally accepts everyone at their individual levels,” says Hikind. Yoni is one of the most popular staff members at Our Place, and often has the kids over to the Hikind home on Shabbos, showing no delineation over where work ends and personal interest begins.
Indeed, the kids who frequent Our Place become like family to the staff. “I’m a single guy and don’t have any children yet, but I truly think of Our Place’s kids as my own,” explains Yoni. “When I get phone calls telling me they’re in trouble, I have trouble falling asleep at night because I feel their pain. But more importantly, I feel a real and sincere love for them.” Just this year, Yoni founded Our School, an alternative yeshiva that involves GED classes and lectures from a rotating panel of professionals in the Jewish community giving career advice. The school’s administration plans to apply for state accreditation for next year.
Although both Yoni and Jack admit it is sometimes hard to keep going, as discouragement in this kind of work abounds. For every step of progress, there are often two steps backward as the lure of the streets and its promises of cheap and empty thrills beckons to the teens. However, the things that keep them going are twofold: one, when the kids who’ve made a complete turnaround invite them to their weddings or when they drop by to say hi; and two, the encouragement from other staff members, who must keep themselves motivated to continue doing their selfless work.
Still, it is hard to persevere in the face of ubiquitous regression. A short time ago, a 24-year old regular at Our Place, Aron, passed away from a drug overdose. And even though his funeral, and past funerals of Our Place teens, makes an impression on their peers, it is typically fleeting. Their challenges and hardships push them to fall back to their old escapist and harmful pursuits.
“We’ve had heterim to have open caskets at some of these funerals,” says Jack, “but even the sight of their friends’ bodies is not enough to snuff out the teens’ desires for the streets.”
Jack explains that rather than call them “kids at-risk,” which has become a common term bandied about to describe the teens, he calls them “kids in pain,” because it is their pain that drives them to harmful activities. Pain from broken and dysfunctional families; from being molested and physically abused; from parents who don’t have the time, patience or energy to deal with their learning disabilities or the extra need for affection and attention.
Luckily, the teens can get affection from any of Our Place’s devoted and loving staffers, who dedicate hours on end to providing them with an open forum to speak; free pizza to nourish their bodies; and attention, love and devotion to nourish them emotionally.
Assemblyman Hikind isn’t the only high-profile supporter of the center. Comedian Jackie Mason gave a benefit performance in support of Our Place in July 2008.
But despite a large show of support, donations from private individuals are needed now more than ever. The government’s budget for Our Place’s operations has recently been cut, a result of the still-suffering economy, and if these teens are to have any chance in life, it is vital that Our Place continues to exist and thrive.
Hikind says that if he could say one thing to the Jewish community to impress upon them the value of such work, it would be that the next “at-risk” teen could be your own child. “If you think it can’t happen to you, think again. I see children coming from the best families and with all the advantages life has to offer go down a dangerous and detrimental path. And even if it isn’t your child, don’t you have an imperative to help your neighbor’s child? It’s essential that Our Place continue to be there for these kids.”