BELLOWS FALLS, Vt. – At the end of the school year in 2016, the Boys and Girls Club of Bellows Falls lost funding from its parent organization, creating a void in the community with no reliable place for free after school care and supervision for children. This is when Friends for Change – a youth program created for kids and by kids – stepped up and made a difference, realizing the huge hole left behind but also recognizing the opportunity to create something new and improved.
“Our new group has the unique advantage of forming a club than can build upon years of past successes, but also learn from the failures of the previous BGC,” Director Hailee Galandak-Cochran said in a recent interview. “Working with youth, compassionate adults and social service professionals, Friends of Change has built a mission that is designed to serve our community specifically.”
The mission was and is to support and nurture the personal and social wellness of school-aged youth (from age 8) in the Bellows Falls and surrounding area. Friends for Change offers a democratically-run operation and play-based after school and summer program where children don’t just play but learn how to help build a better community to live in.
“We wanted to create a space that is trauma informed, compassionate and meets children where they are at, on a developmental level,” Galandak-Cochran said. “We build an environment where young people are seen not as passive recipients but as active creators, and all members have an equal say and are part of the decision-making process.”
After the closing of BGC, Friends For Change created a board of advisors, obtained a rent free, youth-friendly space, developed a fundraising program, created relationships with existing organizations, created training opportunities for youth and volunteers, and regularly attended monthly outreach events.
“We work closely with several local organizations including Greater Falls Connections, the prevention coalition based out of Parks Place in Bellows Falls. We also collaborate with the Greater Falls Restorative Justice Center, the BF Community Bike Project, and Our Place Drop-in Center.”
In 2017 Friends for Change received the Vermont Community Foundation Small and Inspiring grant. This, in combination with the grant and funds raised by youth led fundraisers, enabled them to host an AmeriCorps member through the Vermont Youth Development Corps.
Additionally, Youth Services Inc. of Brattleboro agreed to provide supervision and fiscal management of the AmeriCorps member. Friends for Change is also in the process of strengthening their relationship with Youth Services, with the hope of becoming a program of the much larger organization. “We invite local artists and skilled professionals to be involved,” Galandak-Cochran added, “and partner with existing organizations to create a diverse program that empowers and inspires youth to live healthy happy lives.”
Yes, in this program, the kids really are free to play and express themselves based on the democratic values of meaningful participation, personal goals, and equality for all. All activities are optional and non-coercive, creating an equitable community where all decisions are made by consensus. In all activities, they ensure safety and encourage a trustworthy and transparent environment that provides and cultivates creativity, imagination, and social, emotional, and cognitive skills. This implementation of restorative justice practices creates empowerment and equality for all.