Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 14
 
Wednesday, April 4, 2007
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Corner House Director Looks Ahead as Organization Celebrates 35 Years

Matthew Hersh

Serving over 225 kids a week in prevention programs and outreach as a means of introducing them to a safer, on-the-right-path way of life is hardly an easy task.

But somehow, in the hour or so it takes Corner House's Gary DeBlasio to drive through the Pine Barrens to his home in Manahawkin, there is enough "decompression" time to regroup, and return to work fresh, ready to tackle the health and well-being of Princeton's youth. Mr. DeBlasio, the executive director of Princeton's counseling center for adolescents, young adults, and families, is about to celebrate Corner House's 35th anniversary, but by the look of things, there's still plenty of work to do.

Sitting in his office at the Valley Road School Monday playing catch-up after being away from the desk for about a week, Mr. DeBlasio is very much back in work mode:

"Corner House has always responded to the needs of the Princeton Community regarding youth, and I think we're continuing to do that with our latest programming," he said. One note: there are two, freshly pressed, gently worn, prom dresses in the telltale dry cleaner plastic, awaiting pick-up by Corner House and Princeton Alcohol and Drug Alliance Representatives to give to teens in the Princeton Regional Schools who cannot afford their own formal gowns. So these days, as Mr. DeBlasio, who holds a master's degree in psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and an undergraduate degree in behavioral disabilities in education, explains his background, his office, for now, doubles as a charitable mercantile.

All in a day's work, right?

"If we give kids the opportunity to show us what they're made of, they always end up delivering," he said, adding that the $1 million Corner House organization, a joint-municipal agency receiving about $100,000 dollars from Princeton Borough and Princeton Township with the remaining funding coming from grants and fund-raising, is now in the midst of Princeton latest youth challenge: gangs.

"We're responding to the latest hit that the community has taken in regard to the gang issue," he said. This year, Corner House has launched its community-wide prevention and intervention effort to reduce or even eliminate not only gang involvement, but also juvenile delinquency and youth violence. The program targets teens, aged 13 to 18, identified as being high-risk gang-vulnerable, or involved in gang activity outright.

Further, the Borough and Township last year approved funding for a full-time outreach coordinator for the Princeton Youth Project — a move that indicates a commitment to what is a growing problem in Princeton.

As Corner House board members, through their involvement with any number of youth-oriented organizations in town, began seeing more kids in Princeton getting involved in gang activity, a group of elected and appointed officials, as well as community volunteers, started exploring what could be the best path to take to approach the issue:

"We looked at outside programs, but my belief was that Corner House has a connection with all of these kids at every level, and we have the ability to pull in a large number of kids. We're a known quantity.

"If another program came in, it would have to develop a certain level of credibility, but we have history here. We have families here."

Corner House hired Jay Curtis, a PHS graduate, to conduct full-time outreach, particularly with youth on the "fringe," Mr. DeBlasio said. "We can meet them at school, connect with them outside of school, and just talk with them and begin helping them focus on what other opportunities are available to them."

Mr. Curtis teamed up with the group Committed Princetonians, an African American men's group geared to help local children, as well as the local schools and police departments, to identify "at-risk" teens. Corner House has opened its doors on Friday nights to hold events such as Madden NFL video game tournaments with prizes and food. "The reality for a lot of these kids is that there is no place else to go.

"You have gang involvement with a disenfranchised community, and you have people telling them that they can make a lot of money for selling drugs — this is a prime market for that," he said, citing the town's overall affluence, as well as the Princeton University community. "Drug sales can easily be made here."

The Princeton Youth Project, in recruiting youth, encourages them to integrate into other, more traditional prevention programs like Corner House's Transitions and World of Work for Youth Programs, and various other recreational activities.

The list is actually endless for Corner House programming, but Mr. DeBlasio does not seem fazed; in fact, he welcomes it. "This is one of the places where boundaries breakdown, we have kids from every part of the community, and our role is just trying to pull people together."

———

Next Tuesday, April 10, the Corner House Foundation will host its annual benefit, and celebrate its 35th anniversary at McCarter Theatre, featuring singer (and Princeton native) Mary Chapin Carpenter. For information and tickets, call (609) 924-8018.

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