Heading into its 15th year, Trackside Teen Center in Wilton is marking milestone accomplishments. Attendance is up, new programs and events have been launched, and the center has expanded its impact in the community.

But the nonprofit center, which serves “tweens and teens,” is also looking for more community support to keep things going.

Trackside started off the year with new executive leadership.

Cindy Moser, the new director of development and operations, also coordinates fundraising, and is a familiar face in Wilton as an active volunteer with the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT).

John Priest, director of programming, joins Trackside in a part-time capacity, coordinating teen programs and events. He is a sixth grade teacher at Middlebrook School.

They join Ryan Ketley, a freelance digital artist, who has been providing program and event support at Trackside for more than four years. Ketley supervises after-school programs, assists with special events, and runs Trackside’s Sunshine Cafe.

At 15 Station Road, from 3 to 6 p.m., Trackside is a popular spot for middle schoolers, with older teens predominately using the facility at other times.

Popular programs at Trackside include: Gaming Thursdays and Smashbros tournaments, Girlz Rule Mondays, Trivia Night, Open Stage Night, Quiz Bowl Club, Dungeons and Dragons Club, Painting with a Purpose, Pre-play Improv Club, Virtual Reality Gaming Club, and Music Trivia Night.

Several programs are made possible through grants from County Assemblies and the Wilton Kiwanis Club.

Trackside staff is listening to kids, Priest said, and is trying to engage them in programs that interest them. He is especially proud of the Quiz Bowl Club, which was started by a teen as a way for high schoolers to train middle schoolers for participation in Quiz Bowl contests.

Likewise, a junior in Wilton High School’s Improv Club, called Freeplay, wanted to do a club for middle school students as a feeder program, so Trackside developed the Pre-play Improv Club.

“These are ways for kids to feel empowered and do something genuine,” Priest said.

This past May, Trackside brought groups together at its Rising Freshmen event for eighth graders. A panel of high school freshmen and sophomores offered eighth graders insights and tips to make their transition to high school easier.

High schoolers also use the center to mentor younger students. And more than 100 high school students are involved in SafeRides, which meets on Friday and Saturday nights at Trackside, to provide teens with information and alternatives to driving while impaired.

Positive impact

Trackside’s initiatives are making a positive impact on participation.

So far this year, more than 200 kids have participated in programs at Trackside. “This is up significantly from last school year, when it took nearly seven months to draw in the same number of teens,” Priest said.

Per week, Trackside is averaging 60 student sign-ins, and more than 80 in the busiest week this school year. On a busy afternoon, Priest said, there are easily 35 or more teens at Trackside participating in a range of programs and activities. This is up from the springtime, where an average week drew about 25 student sign-ins.

Trackside has also expanded its reach from Wilton public schools, drawing participants from Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Academy and Wilton students at Fairfield Prep. The center’s open stage night, featuring Ridgefield’s School of Rock house band also drew teens from Ridgefield, New Canaan, Brookfield and South Salem and Brewster, N.Y.

Engaging with the community, in August, Trackside sponsored the Wilton Food Truck Festival, which was attended by more than 2,500 people and raised more than $9,000 for the center. The festival was such a success, that Trackside is planning several more community events in the future.

But as successful as Trackside is, funding the nonprofit center is a challenge. The center relies on donations to cover the bulk of its costs. Cindy Moser is always on the hunt for grants, Priest said.

Trackside gets an annual financial contribution from the town of Wilton, leading people to mistakenly believe the center is fully funded through tax dollars, which it isn’t.

“Trackside is not completely funded through the town. We have a partnership with the town for operating costs, but the bulk of our money comes through donations, rentals, and events (though many events just pay for themselves). We have sponsors such as the Wilton Kiwanis Club and such, but we are still scrounging to keep things moving ahead,” Priest said.

Many teen centers around Fairfield County have a shelf life of just a few years because they are primarily funded through their towns, which is difficult to sustain, Priest said. Those centers often face deep cuts during budget time, he added.

“But Trackside has lasted for 15 years, and that’s because of the people of this town,” Priest said.

The center is considered such an asset, he said, that real estate agents routinely bring their clients to Trackside, telling them they won’t find something like it in many towns. “It’s a feather in the cap of Wilton,” Priest said.

To learn more about Trackside Teen Center or to make a donation, visit trackside.org/donations.html/.

pgay@wiltonbulletin.com