Q&A: Talking Alternatives for Youth, Upcoming Fundraiser and Town Hall Renovation with Outback


When NewCanaanite.com heard from Outback about the organization’s May 20 fundraiser—it’s two related events, the Red Geranium Boutique (9 a.m. to 4 p.m.) and Ladies Night Out (6 to 8:30 p.m.)—we saw a great opportunity to connect with the nonprofit and review a number of newsy items, as well as get more information on the fundraiser itself.

Advocates for Outback—which does know how to put on a good event—during this budget season just past, pushed to restore funding for the downtown center in the face of what they called serious drinking problems among New Canaan youth. The facility itself sits directly back of Town Hall, which is undergoing a widely anticipated renovation.

Sangeeta Appel is president of the Outback Board of Directors.

Sangeeta Appel is president of the Outback Board of Directors.

Sangeeta Appel, president of Outback’s Board of Directors, provided us with some great information about how the organization sees its role in New Canaan, including a four-pronged approach to youth services that places Outback in a strong, complementary position to local agencies focused on education and prevention.

We also got some good details about the Boutique’s numerous vendors—who they are and what they offer—and touched on the familiar matter of parking in downtown New Canaan amid some large construction projects (Appel is quick to praise the town’s Department of Public Works for its communication and diligence.)

A sincere “Thank You” to Appel for your considered and frank responses.

Here’s our exchange.

New Canaanite: I want to talk about the fundraiser, but first let’s talk a little bit about Outback and its place in the landscape of local organizations that serve youth and families in New Canaan. That’s always an area of focus for the town, and in the last two budget cycles we’ve seen the major talking points emerge in the area of services for kids specifically—with the outreach worker at New Canaan High School two years ago, and then the police resource officer at Saxe this year. While all that is happening, we understand that, increasingly, New Canaan has a need for programs that become part of a solution to young people turning to alcohol or drugs as forms of recreation. What is Outback’s place in town, in that context? Why is it important?

Sangeeta Appel: The Outback’s unique service in New Canaan is to provide a space specifically dedicated to safe social and enrichment activities for our preteen and teen population after school and on the weekends. Whether structured or unstructured, the Outback’s activities are created to encourage our young people to engage in appropriate face-to-face socialization and have fun trying something new and different outside their school, sports and religious environments. New Canaan is a high achieving community and the pressures to achieve in school or sports can be overwhelming to many teens and pre-teens. Afterschool and weekends often are times when students “let their hair down” and alcohol and drugs become an issue while socializing. To be able to offer “alternatives” in a place that is substance-free is critical – especially for the younger teens, but also for those older ones who want to abstain.

Whether tapping into one’s creativity or just relaxing and having fun with friends, new and old, our middle school and high school students have an easily accessed sanctuary right downtown.

To tackle the issue of underage substance abuse, a community wide effort is essential for success. A four-pronged approach might be considered – education, prevention, alternatives and consequences.

The schools and New Canaan CARES are well suited to address the education component and the Outback has collaborated with them on programs in the past and will continue to do so in the future. Several youth serving groups such as Youth Services, church groups, YMCA and the Outback promote prevention through development of personal assets such as self-esteem, and value in the community.

Research has shown that the success of alcohol and drug prevention is dependent on building developmental assets amongst adolescents. The Outback’s very existence and its activities are designed to do just that:

  1. to communicate that the community values youth;
  2. to provide a space with caring professional adults beyond parents who can interact with and encourage students;
  3. to give youth positive and useful community roles through the Student Governing Board and community service programs; and
  4. to offer an alternative place for constructive uses for downtime after school and on weekend nights.

Along with the education and prevention, alternatives need to be available. The Outback has a clear role in providing an alternative place for teens to have fun without resorting to risky behaviors. The police department, schools and parents are a critical part of following up on consequences to deter inappropriate behaviors.

The Outback’s Code of Conduct is very specific about its no tolerance policy and a police officer is hired for large-scale high school events. Over the years students have tested the code many times, as is the nature of teens to test boundaries. These situations have provided opportunities to bring awareness to parents and students about choices made and the consequences for their choices – such as being sent home with parents and suspension from future Outback programs – in an effort to help teens choose to make a better choice in the future. We work closely with the police department and EMS to keep the kids safe.

Finally, the availability of financial resources bears significantly on the impact that the Outback can have in its prevention efforts. As an independently funded not-for-profit, the volunteer Board depends on four events a year as well as grants and individual donations to fund the annual bare-minimum budget of $225,000. Increased public sources of income would help tremendously in the consistent delivery of social programming.

The Red Geranium Boutique and Ladies Night Out has run for three years now, and this is the fourth. Talk a little about the boutique’s vendors—from how far and wide are they coming, and which among them are local to New Canaan—and what is it about the event that’s been the big draw? Do you find you have returning participants in both the boutique and the night out?

There will be eighteen (18) vendors participating in this year’s event. We are very excited to have merchandise ranging from clothing for men, women and children, natural beauty products and jewelry to home décor, silk floral designs and hand-crafted items from all over the world.

The majority of the vendors are local to Fairfield County, but we do have Bird Dog Bay (men’s ties and accessories with whimsical designs) out of Chicago, MoesMonkeys (children’s clothes) from Palm Beach, Florida and Charleston Shoe Co. (women’s and children’s shoes) from Charleston, South Carolina. CMM Designs-Status Faux (traditional costume jewelry) comes from NYC. Our New Canaan based vendors include Suzanne Einstein Jewelry (trendy faux jewelry), Vacaymama (tunics and beachwear), Juice Plus (natural vegetable and fruit powder supplements), Kelly’s Four Plus Granola (natural granola), and Kirstin Dahl (designer clothes at a discount). The majority of our vendors are returning from prior years, but we are excited to welcome new vendors as well: Sail to Sable (chic meets preppy tunic dresses), Mama Jane’s Global Boutique (hand crafted items from around the world), Thorn Hill Trading Co. (home accents and personal accessories), The Traveling Boutique (scout bags and totes) and Peaceable Hill Paperie (watercolor stationery).

The vendors’ merchandise is high quality across the board and we have worked hard to make sure that we offer our customers a variety of items to purchase. We hope that everyone can find something for Dad, a grad, Mom or a child. The added dimension of nibbling and sipping while shopping at Ladies Night Out makes the evening portion of the event especially fun.

Yes, many people have returned over the years and we are working hard to build our audience for Red Geranium. As you can well imagine, the community calendar in New Canaan is consistently rich with activities so it is not easy to find a date free from conflicts. We have moved the date up earlier this year to ease away from the school year-end craze with the hope that more people are able to attend. We welcome everyone – parents, friends, and community members!

Whether it’s programming, on-site services, a fact about staff at Outback, its history or even the building, tell us something about the organization that would surprise people in New Canaan or that they may not know.

Many New Canaan citizens have never visited the Outback building and do not know that right in the heart of our community we have a beautiful physical resource dedicated to our young people, which is also available to all New Canaan residents. The Outback is available to rent for private parties, community organizations and school groups.  Not-for-profit groups get a special discounted rate. This facility can hold up to 250 people and houses a commercial kitchen available at a very reasonable fee along with the facility rental.

There are also many adult programs organized during the daytime hours when the students are in school. The Outback adult courses are directed and marketed to the parents and families of our primary audiences. They include Women in Transition, parenting classes, yoga, kickboxing among others. Workshops about college preparation and study skills are also offered.

The view toward the back of Town Hall this week.

The view toward the back of Town Hall this week.

How has the construction going on nearby at Town Hall been working for Outback, its staff and the New Canaanites it services, and what are you looking forward to in terms of next Spring, which is the scheduled completion date?

Fortunately, the construction on the Town Hall site has not been too disruptive on the building to date. The Town Public Works Department has worked closely with our Board and staff to prepare us for the various stages and interruption of services. They have seamlessly adjusted services such as waste disposal and electricity when necessary.

The most significant effect has been the lack of parking. However, the loss of spaces affects everyone in town, not just customers and staff of the Outback. Our primary customers are middle schoolers who visit either on foot in the afternoon after school or are dropped off or high schoolers that tend to visit late in the afternoon or evening when the parking is less problematic. The biggest parking challenge is for the larger community groups renting the facility or adults attending daytime classes. We are growing this usage of the center as a source of necessary income.

We look forward to the reopening of traffic flow in the parking lots, saying goodbye to all the construction fences and equipment and being able to view the newly renovated Town Hall through our windows next Spring when construction is completed.

More information about the Red Geranium Boutique and Ladies Night Out can be found on Outback’s homepage. Here’s the registration page.

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