When Deep Root Center opened in January 2014, with one student member, I had, absolutely, no concept of how much this thing would evolve over the next 5 ½ years, how many amazing people would show up to participate, or how drastically my life would change.
For those of you who were not around for our humble beginnings, one sentence can sum up that first year and a half: DRC was a, less than inspiring, one-room space (shabby, unheated for the first couple weeks, overheated in the summer, but most importantly cheap) with a few pieces of ancient furniture donated by SLU, a few kids, who randomly participated, me, and my (slightly insane) vision.
Because we made a promise at the very beginning to accept any child, whether their family could pay the tuition or not, I knew that the financial aspect of keeping DRC alive would always be the hardest part. To this day, we honor that original policy (fee reductions each year have ranged from 45,000.00 to 85,000.00), and, we continue to struggle financially, but somehow, year after year, always manage to pay our bills and remain viable. This has been due to a few well-timed donations and grants, my incredible sidekick, Christopher Raymo, who is willing to take a stipend, instead of full salary, and that I was able to work without a salary for four years, and with a small stipend since then.
Like most new ventures that require people to show up and buy-in, for the first five years, we accepted anyone who said they needed us. A fair number of these kids didn’t really want to take charge of their education, they were, simply, disenfranchised and desperate to leave the place that was traumatizing them. This de facto policy helped us grow from three committed and dedicated students in 2015, when we moved to our new, two-room, home on the 2nd floor of 7 Main, to seventeen by the end of that year – a number we hovered around for the entire time we remained in that space, with many kids coming and leaving. I do not want to diminish the courage it took all those young people, who joined us, but did not show-up or fully engage, to leave school. In the end, we will never know the impact (if any) we had in helping them abandon a system that was making them miserable.
Over that time, we hired Andre as our part-time Program Director, for 1 1/2 years, introduced our Seedlings Program for kids between 5-10, and hired Christopher as the Coordinator for that program and as our Music Director. The space was always humming with the activity of happy, engaged kids working on hands-on and independent projects, as well as small classes. We also developed some much-needed policies to address all the new challenges we encountered along the way. In late winter, 2016, Trish showed up as one of our volunteers. At her instigation, at the beginning of the 17/18 academic year, we started our Tuesday outdoor program, Water, Woods, & Wild Wonders. Our student members have the opportunity to immerse themselves for the entire day outside, to learn through observation and to develop an appreciation for our natural world.
By that same year, we had also increased our number of rooms to six, as well as the amount of rent we were paying. It was also at this point that we realized that we needed to purchase our own property. Those twenty-five steps from the street level, as well as the space itself, was limiting our growth potential, and the opportunities we could offer our kids.
Long story, short – after viewing several houses, with a ton of folks sending out positive vibes, lending us the down payment, and, quite simply, believing in us, we made an offer on 48 Riverside Drive (the first house we ever looked at), at the end of June 2018. A long summer of drama around zoning ensued, but finally, on September 26th, we closed on our new home. Thanks to many completely awesome folks, who volunteered their time, we were able to address some needed repairs and officially move in November 1st, 2018!
This house has made it possible for us to grow exponentially, in both numbers, and opportunities we are able to offer our kids. The basement and garage are now workshop spaces, where we can create larger more complex hands-on projects. A full kitchen allows us to cook together and for each other. We are also partners with Central NY Foodbank so we can access free or reduced cost ingredients. The property consists of ½ acre. The backyard is a huge space which allows for hours of free, unrestricted play. A landscaping project is planned for this fall to beautify the front yard.
We have also been able to step back and recognize that DRC is not right for everyone. We, simply, can’t help those people who really don’t want to be here and don’t want to participate fully. As a result, we are much more deliberate with our application process and have instituted a two-month trial period for all incoming members.
The staff and board are incredibly grateful to provide this non-coercive space, where together, with our members, we can create an environment, where everyone feels safe, comfortable, and inspired to try new things.
Which brings me to our latest milestone, as of this Friday, when we signed on four more student members, DRC has reached capacity. I never, in a million years, would have thought that, in this relatively short period of time, we would reach a point where we would have to start a waiting list. Nonetheless, that in fact, is what we have done, not to mention, it already has one name on it.
What does this all mean for our future? In the short-term, in addition to serving our existing members and supporting them to reach their very own milestones, I will continue to offer consultation services to those kids who are desperate to leave school. There are infinite ways to become a self-directed learner and I am dedicated to supporting anyone who wants to explore a new way forward. In the long-term, 48 Riverside has the potential of expanding by building a room over the garage. That endeavor, of course, requires money. It has always been my plan to open Deep Root Centers all over the NoCo, as we are able. Which means we have to get Canton fiscally sustainable first! The possibilities are endless, and I am committed to exploring them all, as they present themselves. Onward!!!
* Additional notes of appreciation: First to our ever-evolving Board of Directors, which currently includes- the excellent Kara Mcluckie and Candace Cowser (who have both been on the board from the beginning), Steve Hamilton (our new Board President), Bart Harloe (our VP), Matt McAllister (a parent of two DRC members), and Andrew Carpino.
Thank you, to Ken Danford, co-founder of North Star: Self- Directed Learning for Teens, for creating the original vision on which all Liberated Learners Centers are based. Without him, there would be no DRC.
I would be remiss, if I didn’t thank all of the volunteers who, over these 5 1/2 years, have shared their knowledge and talents with our kids. DRC would be, a whole lot, less awesome without their contributions.
Imagination Station 2019 - DRC's Summer Program has concluded for this year. We had a blast. See you all next August. Thanks again to Kelly, founder of the brand new Flying Lotus Yoga and Juice Bar, opening soon on Main Street, for sharing yoga with our summer kids. Go and support this new business in our wonderful village.
DRC's first day is Thursday, September 5th. We are looking forward to a completely amazing 19/20 filled with growth, compassion for one another, and an abundance of personal milestones.