Olney teens want
Apr. 7, 1999

by Peggy Vaughn

Staff Writer

April 7, 1999

Anthony DeCicco and Katie Yee are the kind of teens any parent would be proud of. The bright, attractive 17-year-old juniors from Sherwood High School are natural leaders involved in a long list of school and community projects.

But they share something in common with their less successful peers, the Olney teens struggling with drugs and alcohol.

Both groups say Olney teens need a place to go after 9 at night -- a comfortable, welcoming retreat, a place to listen to music, dance and hang with friends.

DeCicco and Yee are determined to make that dream a reality -- with a little help from the Olney community.

"We'd like a '90s version of the 1950s malt shop," Yee said. "We want a place for kids to go without drugs and alcohol, where kids are welcome. We want to hang with friends and not feel threatened."

"Olney is a great place to live, but a horrible place to grow up," DeCicco said.

"After 9 at night, there's no place to go in town except the 7-Eleven," he said. "People see us come in their stores and almost look down on us. That's why kids head to Rockville or D.C. for a movie or something to eat."

Robert Roth, coordinator of Montgomery General Hospital's Adolescent Treatment Program, said he hears much the same story from the 65 Olney teens he is treating for drug and alcohol problems.

"The number one reason they give [for using drugs] is there's nothing to do in Olney, that they're bored," Roth said.

"I still don't buy that completely. If you want to find something else to do, you will," he said. "But then I found the kids that don't use drugs were saying the same thing, too."

Last December, Roth invited DeCicco and Yee to join the hospital in looking at ways to change the situation.

Called Project Change, the group consists of a steering committee of a dozen Sherwood students working with Roth and several hospital, school and parent sponsors.

Project Change is not just adults telling youths to say no to drugs, Yee said, and that's what makes it special.

"Youth know what youth want," she said. "We get together and plan without adults, then we present it to them. Sometimes, they give us a reality check. But it's still youth-driven."

In mid-January, Project Change surveyed 227 Sherwood students on changes they desired in Olney. Over half the responses asked for a place to go at night, either a dance club or restaurant.

"There are 4,161 kids between the ages of 12 and 18 with nothing to do in the evening in the Olney area," DeCicco said. "It'd be a gold mine for anyone opening up a coffee shop or restaurant that serves kids in a welcoming, drug-free atmosphere."

When the students learned about a change in ownership of the Olney Village Mart shopping center on Olney-Sandy Spring Road (Route 108) last month, they jumped at the opportunity to plead their case with the new owners.

"The [Olney] Gazette articles on the Olney Village Mart really sparked this," DeCicco said. "We went to the Carl Freeman company (the center's new owner) the next day and it took off from there."

The students told Freeman a ready market existed for a restaurant or coffee shop catering to youths. A wooden dance floor, pool tables and an arcade would complete the picture, they said.

"They're going to take our thoughts and work with us. They were pleased we came to them," DeCicco said.

Freeman spokeswoman Julie Pacatte confirmed the company wants to work with Project Change.

"It could come to fruition if we could find a company that's already doing this elsewhere," she said. "Or we may go to one of the restaurants already existing in the center and see if they're interested in partnering with us."

Project Change is contacting drug-free coffee shops and dance clubs in a dozen other states to come up with ideas for an Olney version. It has also contacted state and county legislators, local businesses and places of worship to ask for support.

Key to the plan is the continued involvement of the students in helping plan events at the shop or restaurant.

"We don't want to run the business," Yee said. "But we want a commercial investor that will listen to us. We want to play a role."

Freeman is open to the idea, Pacatte said.

"While the redevelopment is in flux it will take time for us to figure out our plans. But we believe in partnerships with schools and students," she said.

In addition, Project Change has a series of other programs in the works, Roth said.

"I tell the kids, we're not just about opening up a soda shop. We're about bringing the community together," he said.

He said the possibility of hosting midnight basketball at a local community center or high school is being explored.

Over the summer, students will head out into the community to "map" every business and organization offering students something positive to do. The results will be posted on a Project Change Web site.

"When kids say they have nothing to do, we can say, 'Do you know this is available?'" he said.

Project Change will take time to be effective because it's all about changing attitudes, Roth said.

DeCicco and Yee said they're willing to work for change, even if it takes years or if things don't work out at Village Mart.

"We might not see this happen for us, but we can make it happen for the younger students," DeCicco said.

For more information about Project Change, call 301-774-8839. The next meeting, which is open to the public, will be 7 p.m. April 12 in the conference room at Montgomery General Hospital.