YouthNet Ten Years Later by Malia Rulon Herman
The town library was being overrun by teenagers, streaming across the street from Maplewood Middle School in search of activity after school. Library patrons described almost getting knocked down and staff having to repeatedly “shhhhh” the hordes.
Some town leaders suggested building a youth recreation center. The library announced it would close its doors from 2:45 p.m. until 5 p.m. to avoid the chaos. Something had to be done.
Perhaps nothing is more apropos to this particular scenario than the Margaret Thatcher adage: “If you want something done, ask a woman.”
Because that’s just what the leaders in Maplewood and South Orange did. To be precise, they asked Diane Malloy.
“They looked for an executive director and hired me,” Malloy says of the newly-dubbed YouthNet organization. “There was nothing in place. It was an idea on a yellow pad, that’s it.”
That idea, sparked by necessity 10 years ago, has grown into a highly successful after-school organization. Spearheaded by then-Maplewood Mayor Fred Profeta and then-South Orange Village Trustee Doug Newman, the nonprofit offers dozens of after-school clubs – from robotics and coding to cooking and social justice – for middle school students at MMS and the South Orange Middle School.
“There were a lot of kids with no place to go after school,” says Profeta, who formed a task force to examine the problem and possible solutions. “At the end of the day, we decided what would be best would be a local nonprofit organization with the mission of improving after-school life for the kids in the community.”
It started small, according to Camilla Teitelman of South Orange, who has worked on YouthNet with Malloy since its inception and now serves as the co-chair of its Executive Board of Directors alongside Kevin Mason, assistant principal at Columbia High School.
“The first year, we had two clubs but now we have 15 in each building,” Teitelman says.
The club model was chosen after Malloy surveyed the students. It turned out that they actually didn’t want an expensive, new rec center; they just wanted something to do. The disruption at the library, which came to a head after it was featured in a New York Times article in January of 2007, was just a generation of youngsters calling for help.
“It brought to our forefront that there are a lot of families who don’t plan activities for their kids for after school,” explains Malloy. “So when the bell rings, they are free. They are out of school and they want to go do things. They don’t want to just go home and do their homework.”
Malloy, a 20-year Maplewood resident, was a perfect fit for YouthNet, the name intended to convey that the organization is a “net” to catch youths falling through the cracks.
Profeta, who wrote its organization papers and was its first chairman, agrees. “One of the most important things I did was to lead the board in hiring Diane Malloy,” he says. “She is fantastic. She is creative. And she has devoted so much time to this. YouthNet succeeds largely because of her.”
Malloy certainly had the business chops: an MBA from Columbia University and a background on Wall Street working on financing for community health centers. But perhaps more importantly, she had the mom chops, having successfully raised three graduates of CHS, including a set of twins. She was a PTA mom, an HSA mom, as well as a lacrosse and field hockey mom.
She’s also a realtor who has recently joined the Victoria Carter team at Weichert, Realtors as a buyer’s agent.
“I really care about the children in our towns and what they do and what supports what they do,” she says. “That’s really what drew me to it and it’s still my passion. I want to see this organization succeed and continue.”
For the first two years, YouthNet offered its programs for free, thanks to a Department of Justice grant. Now, it’s a $40 registration fee per session, and middle school students can sign up for any number of academic, social or athletic clubs. (There are usually three sessions per year.) Scholarships are available for those who are unable to pay the fee; about 55 percent of the students receive assistance.
Middle schoolers can also sign up for after care school enrichment programs that include both clubs and homework assistance from teachers. All clubs are run by teachers, who come up with the ideas, typically in areas in which they have a personal interest. They receive a stipend for each club they run, plus invaluable real-life connections with students outside the classroom.
At CHS, the organization is less of a club format and more individualized: The Youth Advisory Board allows students to fundraise and hold events for local causes. And with the Mentoring Program, students can learn to write a resume and apply for internships in which they are placed with local businesses and organizations in town. One of the places where students can intern is the Maplewood Public Library. Talk about coming full circle.
“The need for after-school enrichment cannot be minimalized,” Malloy says. “It’s always on the bottom of people’s priority lists, but it’s so important. Learning doesn’t stop at 3 o’clock.”
Thankfully, leaders in both Maplewood and South Orange support the organization and have generously allocated funds for it every year. However, fundraising remains a key objective.
South Orange Village President Sheena Collum helped spearhead the first-ever South Orange Invitational golf outing last year, raising $25,000 for the nonprofit organization, which she calls “a wonderful cause.”
According to Malloy, what makes it so wonderful is that it allows kids to mingle in a way that doesn’t ordinarily happen.
“If you have an interest in music and you want to take a drumming class at South Orange [Middle School], you sign up for it because it’s offered, and you take it with a kid you would never have had lunch with,” she says. “I think that’s why it’s lasted so long. There’s value for everyone: value for the school, value for the community, value for the teacher, value for the student and the parent. It’s building a sense of community.”
Teitelman, whose kids have also gone through the South Orange-Maplewood School District system and graduated from Columbia High School, credits Malloy with the organization’s success, describing her as being able to juggle running the organization while also having an excellent rapport with the teachers in the schools and a good antenna for what will and won’t work.
“Last year, we put in an organic chemistry club. Who would think that would be popular? It was oversubscribed! And Shakespeare? Who would think middle school students would be interested in that? Again, oversubscribed.”
As YouthNet enters its second decade of programming, it continues to change with the times. A police mentoring pilot program developed by Maplewood Deputy Mayor Frank McGehee was offered last year, as well as a LGBT club that ran Pride Month events.
“YouthNet has seen changes in superintendents, changes in school principals, changes in township leaders, and we’ve survived it all,” Malloy says. “We are committed to working collaboratively to remain relevant to the needs of our towns’ youth.” For more information or to donate, visit somayouthnet.org.