Briana Echols remembers The CanTeen as an eclectic space where it was easy to fit in.
“I liked that it was a mixture of people – people that you really wouldn’t think would hang out together, but here they were playing pool or games together,” she says. “I felt like I was part of a community.
“It was my favorite my favorite place growing up,” she says. “It helped me be independent. It helped me make more friends.”
Briana found herself at The CanTeen two or three days a week during some very formative years. Well over a decade later, she’s still around as a mentor and Friends of the Canteen Board Member.
“I spent a majority of my childhood there,” she says. “I mainly just hung out at first and then I got into doing more volunteer work.”
It sparked her interest in working with kids that she’s turned into a career in the Syracuse City School District.
“I’ve always liked working with kids, but volunteering with teens my own age and doing activities in the community increased my need to work with kids even more,” Briana says. “I feel like a better person when I’m helping other people.”
The CanTeen celebrated 20 years in 2019, most of which Briana’s been around for. She considers founder Toni’Lyn Brauchle a key influence and now close friend.
“She helped me be more of an adult, she helped me make tough decisions,” Briana says. “No matter what I’m going through I can show up, even as an adult. I know that someone will be there to talk to.”
She’s more than happy to give back as an adult as well.
“I’d like to see more of the future generation helping out and volunteering. I hope these kids find a second home like I found a second home.”
Like many CanTeen alumni, Stephany VanDyke came to the space on the suggestion of friends. It was simply a place to hang out and enjoy activities like open mic night.
But, it became much more than that as she began to forge bonds with staff and mentors who let her open up.
“Some of the most important conversations … I felt so comfortable in that place that I could engage with an adult and with kids my age and feel safe,” Stephany says. “It’s teaching life skills through acceptance.”
She was able to express herself during some very difficult times. At 16, she lost her best friend in a drunk driving accident and struggled.
“I learned to never give up on yourself,” Stephany says. “I learned through the support and love that never ended through that program despite the bad life choices I was making.
“Looking back on that and where I am today with my life and a family and a career and a positive outlook on my past and my future,” she says. “I give my experience at the CanTeen a lot of credit for that. I think it’s really important to have that kind of community.”
It was a community that gave her the opportunity to develop leadership skills that have stuck with the senior account executive at a large telecommunications company. She points out The CanTeen can accommodate just about any path with its staff, programming and resources for volunteering.
“The CanTeen is a blank slate. You can make it what you want,” Stephany says. “It’s for people who say, ‘I just want to hang out with people who get me, be accepted and have a relaxed, safe atmosphere where I can really turn this into however I want to experience it.’”
Matt Bailey was just looking to hang out with his buds when he first stepped into The CanTeen. Not only did he make more lifelong friends, but he also didn’t realize just how much The CanTeen experience would shape his adult life.
The CanTeen turned him on to volunteerism. He became anxious to perform more and more community service.
“I went to almost every single event. I loved giving back to the community with them,” Matt says. “I loved making a good word for The CanTeen.
“I wanted to show that we weren’t just a bunch of teenagers, we were doing some good in the community,” he says.
The CanTeen is indeed more than a teen center or after-school hangout to many of its participants like Matt, who took the opportunity to develop leadership skills as a student. He’s brought those along with him to his job at a catering and vending company where he is a supervisor. He also volunteers as the leader of his church youth group.
“If it wasn’t for The CanTeen, I don’t know if that interest would peak for me as much as it does now,” Matt says.
His fondest memories are of the staff and volunteers who helped him along the way.
“They did a lot for the teens that would come there,” Matt says. “The staff there would always show how much they cared for every single kid and were always trying to show interest.”
He returns the favor by stopping in now and then to give back as a mentor in hopes he can have a similar influence on participants.
“It helps you become a better person,” Matt says. “It’s not just a place you go after school to kill an hour of time, it’s a place where you can go and build relationships with the staff and meet some of your closest friends.”