FARMINGTON — Despite a world health crisis and just six months of being open for business, the members of Farmington’s Center for Entrepreneurial Studies are embarking on the next stage, establishing a center for Franklin County youth.

“So we want to expand the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies into a youth center, basically a boys and girls club, in Farmington for students to turn to,” Social Media Coordinator Talazen Smith said. “There’d be a bus system that would transport students to and from this location after school, specifically the low-income students, those in need, basically those who really need help getting access to resources to support and funds. This youth center would partner with multiple organizations across Franklin County and connections in other states too.”

Smith, a 2019 Mt. Blue graduate, describes the center with a contagious energy, explaining the various sectors that youth could gain experience in such as agriculture, culinary arts, manufacturing, recreation, housing and child care.

The idea stems from Bonita Lehigh, founder of the center and former Mt. Blue High School teacher.

Bonita Lehigh of New Sharon taught business classes at Mt. Blue High School for six years before deciding to collaborate with her students to open the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies in Farmington. Andrea Swiedom/Franklin Journal

“This whole project is about lifting people up. It’ll provide volunteer opportunities to all generations and the youth will keep elders active,” Lehigh said while sorting through grant packets scattered across her desk at the center’s Main Street store.

Smith fondly remembers Lehigh from yearbook class at Mt. Blue and was inspired by her positive mentorship. 

“I saw her, just her ability to connect and relate with students on a personal and compassionate level,” Smith said.

When Smith had to hunker down in Strong and take remote coursework for her legal studies program through the University of Massachusetts at Amherst due to the pandemic, she eagerly reconnected with Lehigh. Smith is volunteering her time to launch a social media campaign and online fundraisers to kick-start the youth center.

“Once this youth center is open and implemented, it could transform Franklin County, really reduce the poverty rates, increase the diversity and inclusion and it would work to unite the youth and reduce the homelessness,” Smith said. “Also, the kids that are in toxic environments would have a place to go to dislocate from abusive homes or environments that limit their potential and suppresses them.” 

What is taking place at the center is almost a pilot of this more expansive vision of a youth center. From Tuesday to Saturday, any student or young person can walk into the center at 156 Main St. and pitch a business idea to Lehigh.

From there, Lehigh mentors the person through developing a business plan and connects them with resources. The center provides these young entrepreneurs with a space to actually market and sell theirs products or services.

Others may simply want some business or interpersonal skills and can be put to work learning the basics through the store’s operations.

Natalie Roger, 15, launched her baked goods business through the center and spends almost everyday after school there.

Peter Byrnes peruses Natalie Roger’s whoopie pie and cupcake offerings at her micro bakeshop at the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at 156 Main St. in Farmington. Bonita Lehigh photo Bonita Lehigh photo

“The center has taught me about retail and what it’s like to run a store,” Roger said in an email. “It’s been fun working with Bonita and my friends. It was a really good opportunity to help get my business started, learn about pricing and presentation of my work, and to make new friends.”

Lehigh said she has about 35 students actively participating in the center, developing product lines such as jewelry and candles or services such as website development.

The students are not required to spend a certain amount of time at the center, but they are often found at the store working on their projects, behind computers doing remote coursework, chatting with customers and marketing their products. It’s clearly a welcoming space that students are utilizing more and more as a refuge.

“I need something to get me out of the house!” 17-year-old Eve Goding said, fully masked, standing next to her eclectic display of handmade earrings.

Eve Goding, 17, sells her handmade jewelry at the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies store at 156 Main St. in Farmington. The center provides youth a place to develop business plans and sell and market their products or services. Andrea Swiedom/Franklin Journal

Goding said there are not many business or arts related after-school activities in the area and she needed some type of outlet, especially during the pandemic.

Sophie Haley-Vigue who also sells her handmade jewelry at the center’s store, expressed a similar need for an after-school outlet.

“I’m usually at the store two days a week, and I often do my online classes from the store on the days I have online school,” she wrote in an email. “During the summer, I was pretty much going every day Monday to Friday.”

Lehigh envisions the youth center operating on a broader scope that would offer young people even more opportunities to launch their own business. She is looking to secure a property that would offer agricultural opportunities, and build a space expansive enough to accommodate a makerspace for manufacturing.

Another facet of the youth center would include a plot of tiny houses that would offer shelter for youth at risk of homelessness. With each aspect of the youth center, Lehigh wants to incorporate a network of existing resources such as inviting the Foster Career and Technical Education Center to help construct the tiny houses.

For now, Lehigh needs investors, collaborators and more young advocates like Smith to help launch a vision into a reality. It’s a vision that Lehigh believes will target an array of countywide issues from child neglect and cyclical poverty to a stalling economy and homelessness.

“People want to invest in youth centers because they’re investing in the next generation,” Lehigh said.

“We need a collectivized team, we need more young people on board, we need more awareness, we need a social media campaign, we need more fundraising,” Smith said, offering her contact information for anyone who wants to get involved.

Talazen Smith can be reached at [email protected] and Bonita Lehigh at [email protected]

For more information about the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, visit the website at https://www.cesmaine.com/ or the CES Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/The-Center-for-Entrepreneurial-Studies-103294441017293/.

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