Kenyon: By charging for after school program, CCBA loses sight of its mission

By JIM KENYON

Valley News Columnist

Published: 05-24-2024 7:30 PM

Modified: 05-26-2024 3:28 PM


In the end, what choice did Jim Vanier have, really? He could have continued drawing a paycheck by looking after and mentoring kids at the Carter Community Building in downtown Lebanon as he’s done for more than 50 years. But it would have meant pretending he was OK with his nonprofit employer’s moneymaking scheme.

He’s too principled for that.

Charging families to have their kids hang out a few hours after school at the CCB, as it’s known, wasn’t going to happen on Vanier’s watch.

At 71, Vanier voted with his feet. His last day of overseeing the CCB’s “Youth Drop-in Center” is June 12. It’s no coincidence that’s also the same day the free drop-in center will cease to exist.

And to think that in an October 2022 fundraising letter, the Carter Community Building Association, which owns and operates the CCB, claimed the “Youth Drop-in Center is at the heart of our mission.”

Eliminating the program 19 months later is just heartless. For decades, the drop-in center has been a godsend for Lebanon kids and their working parents.

This week, the Carter Community Building Association announced that starting this fall, families must cough up $90 a week for their kids to enter the building.

“It goes against what the philosophy of the CCB is supposed to be,” Vanier said, after the pay-to-play (literally) ploy became public. “This place has always been about putting children first. Now it’s all about dollar signs.”

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The beauty of the drop-in center was rooted in its simplicity. Kids, often 20 to 30 on any given day, come by after school to shoot hoops in the gym, play board games or read a book in a safe environment. “It was their home away from home,” Vanier said.

The brick building on Campbell Street opened in the late 1910s — a gift to Lebanon residents from William S. Carter, a businessman, and his wife, Theodora. Shortly thereafter the Carter Community Building Association, or CCBA for short, was formed for the “purpose of furnishing the young people of Lebanon (New Hampshire) a healthful and uplifting club life.”

The drop-in center was open to kids in grades 3-6, but if a second grader came along with an older sibling, Vanier didn’t turn them away. That was part of the friction between CCBA management and Vanier in recent years. He put kids before policies.

Vanier insisted the CCB, which he pretty much ran solo, remain open from morning to late afternoon during school vacation breaks and on snow days. He wasn’t supposed to allow kids in the building until 8 a.m.

But in classic Vanier fashion when he learned a hospital housekeeper’s shift started at 7:30 a.m., he told the single mom to drop her daughter off early. The girl ate breakfast while Vanier read the morning papers. “If I’m there, I’m going to let a kid in,” he said.

The CCBA tried to push Vanier out the door last summer. But with a segment of the community — longtime residents in particular — in an uproar, management backed off.

Vanier is a “hero to anyone who knows anything about the CCB,” said Lebanon attorney Peter Decato. “Do you think he wants to stop working with the youth of Lebanon? He’s devoted his life to them.”

Growing up in a family with nine children, Vanier became a CCB gym rat at an early age. As a teenager, he started working in the building under the tutelage of Pat Walsh, the CCB’s longtime director and another Lebanon icon. Vanier was named youth center coordinator in 1987.

The CCB operates in the shadow of the CCBA’s nearby Witherell Recreation Center, which is a large part of the problem. Over the 40 or so years since Lebanon resident Carl Witherell, who owned a local cable TV company, bequeathed the CCBA more than $4 million that was used to build the modern fitness center, including an indoor pool, the CCB slowly became an afterthought.

CCBA management and its governing board have “lost sight of the meaning of the place,” Decato told me.

He should know. Like Vanier, the 77-year-old Decato grew up spending much of his free time at the CCB. He later joined the CCBA board, serving as chairman when the decision was made to build the Witherell Center.

It’s come at a cost, Decato said. “The CCBA has swallowed the spirit of the CCB,” he told me.

On May 8, Vanier was called into a meeting at the Witherell Center with Executive Director Kerry Artman and Bob Moses, the CCBA’s board chairman.

Vanier learned the new after-school program will have up to 60 kids in grades K-6. He was welcome to stay on, albeit in a reduced role.

“We’ve been planning to move the drop-in program to a licensed after school program for some time in order to meet today’s expectations for quality after- school programming and child safety,” Moses told me via email on Friday.

Moses credited Artman with “putting a thoughtful scholarship plan together than ensures that no child will be denied access due to financial hardship.”

It sounds good, but it’s not reality. Charging admission to hang out at the CCB will only lead to more latchkey kids in Lebanon.

Some families won’t feel comfortable asking for financial help. It’s for the same reasons why every eligible family doesn’t sign up for free school meals. The stigma attached to accepting charity is too much. The income verification paperwork required can also be daunting — and demeaning.

After the CCB’s drop-in center closes next month, “it’ll just be the Carter Building,” Vanier said. “They’ve taken the ‘Community’ out of it.”

As a nonprofit, the CCBA enjoys significant tax benefits, including not having to pay city property taxes. Something it might want to think about before sending bills of its own to Lebanon families.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.