WESTBROOK – Larry Caruso grew up with everything he needed.
“I was the most blessed kid in the world growing up,” Caruso says. “We had a mother and a father around the table. We did things together, we traveled together. I’ve always felt, even back as a kid, the need to give something back.”
Larry Caruso does just that. The vice president of the board of directors at My Place Teen Center in Westbrook, Caruso is the center’s “go-to guy,” according to Executive Director Donna Dwyer. Caruso, the center’s 2012 Volunteer of the Year, is the organization’s information technology guy. He makes sure the Internet is working for the hundreds of kids who use the center, and takes care of other physical needs in the old building, such as the heating system and repairs.
But Caruso’s contributions to at-risk children take on a much deeper human tone than brick and mortar.
“It’s the most rewarding, wonderful, hard volunteer work I’ve ever done,” Caruso said, “because of the kids. The kids are everything.”
Caruso knows a little bit about helping people. As the owner of a company called Senior Protective Administration of Westbrook, he works to protect seniors against phone and other financial scams. He finds enough time outside of his profession to help the kids who meet “behind the red doors” at My Place, on Main Street, which provides a place for more than 500 young people to be safe, hang out with friends and have meals.
The Volunteer of the Year Award, Caruso said, “touched my soul.”
Caruso, 55, is anxious to open the doors to a teen center that is remarkably clean, with shiny wood floors and well-arranged furniture. The first floor features a stage, lounge with television and books, computers and a snack area. Yes, some of these kids actually read books instead of watching TV.
“There’s a lot of homework being done here in the afternoon,” Caruso said. “These kids have a desire to fit in. When you hear their stories, they call this place ‘my place to chill.’ This is their safe haven. They get a lot of love and support here.”
My Place Teen Center, Caruso points out, is focused on kids ages 10 to 18, but it takes in kids as young as 6, and young people as old as 22.
“They come in and we feed them when they’re hungry and we lead them down the path,” Caruso said.
The well-stocked kitchen and dining room are located downstairs. There, on Thursday nights, Caruso works with chef James Tranchemontagne, of the Frog and Turtle, to teach cooking classes and put on meals.
Also downstairs, kids listen to music and dance in the recreation room.
My Place provides some 14,000 meals a year from Monday through Friday, thanks to donors such as Good Shepherd Food Bank and Hannaford. On Wednesday evenings, a local church group provides an open meal for anyone who wants to drop in.
Caruso also knows he must focus some of his attention on the building itself. Despite the gleaming floors and well-arranged furniture, My Place has peeling walls, a bad roof and foundation and drafty windows. In short, it requires renovations – to the tune of about $430,000.
“I know it looks good,” Caruso said, “but it has a lot of issues. We have a $100,000 building improvement grant, and that’s a great start. The whole building will be completely renovated top to bottom in the next three years. It will be a shining star here in downtown Westbrook.”
Caruso, Dwyer and the rest of the staff at My Place pay extra-special attention to giving youth a warm, cheery place to be during the holiday season. There is a family dinner on Dec. 10, during which the kids can invite their families.
Caruso looks forward to the Dec. 7 kids party, where he has played Santa Claus. The Teen Center raised $1,000 last year by selling photos of the kids with Santa for $10 each.
More than that, though, it’s a Christmas party with games, gifts and entertainment. And it’s not always just the little kids who sit on Santa’s lap.
“It’s just because they want to sit with Santa,” Caruso said. “Some older ones do it. Santa makes them happy.
“It’s kids who need adults. They need some structure and some support and some love. Those are things that I always had and I’m willing to give.”
Caruso praises Dwyer as “one of the big reasons this place is where it is today.”
Dwyer returns the love.
“He is committed,” she said of Caruso. “He will do whatever it takes.”
Dwyer said this will be the third kids holiday party sponsored by Unum
“It’s a very festive time for most,” she said. “For some of these kids, it is a very depressing time. It’s a very joyful, warm and loving event that is focused on being together.”
The kids, Dwyer said, get “all amped up” for the party.
“They deserve it,” she said. “They deserve to be surrounded by love and by warmth and by festivities, no matter what. It’s very magical here.”
Dwyer said that 16 percent of the funding for My Place Teen Center is from a stable source, but the rest – about $400,000 – must be raised. Meanwhile, the center has seen an 18 percent increase in attendance. So while the building has needs, she tries to convince donors of the needs of the children.
“Out motto is to dump all the funding we can into the kids,” she said. “Larry is a conduit to getting these services at a free or reduced cost. Not only is he for the kids, but he is for the building. There is a lot going on behind the red doors.”