AUBURN — Fifteen years ago, Darlene Conant bought an apartment building on Hampshire Street, and dreamed of turning an adjacent store into a teen center.

The same issues that inspired her to help, however, led her to back away from her dream — at least temporarily.

Her oldest son was struggling with addiction, and when he died six years ago, Conant began planning again.

She is hoping his death can be a driving force that can help other people, which was no doubt part of Conant’s drive to establish the Salt & Light Community Center as a positive force in the neighborhood.

She founded Salt & Light last year, with plans to eventually offer programming for children and adults at a neighborhood home converted to a community center — classes in finance, coping skills, cooking, education and basic life skills.

But, the dream of opening a physical location in the heart of the neighborhood has proven difficult. Conant has been in talks to buy a Goff Street property to use for the organization’s home base, and the group has launched fundraising toward the effort, but it’s been slow going.

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For now, Conant and a board of directors formed last year are trying to gain momentum and support within the community. Since this time last year, Salt & Light has held several events in the nearby Chestnut Park: Christmas caroling concerts, a story hour, children’s adventure camp and kickball nights.

“If we’re going to connect with people,” she said, “we need to get to know people, and they need to know us and trust us.”

Conant said they are trying to appeal to all age groups, and have started a support group for grandparents who are the primary caregiver for their grandchildren.

Darlene Conant, left, who founded the Salt & Light, walks Thursday through Chestnut Park in Auburn with board member Bob McLaughlin. The organization hosts many events in the park and is looking to open a community center in the Hampshire Street neighborhood. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

Conant moved to Auburn 25 years ago, but did not plan on staying. At the time, the Hampshire Street neighborhood, consisting of a few residential blocks lying next to the busier Union and Court streets, was simply a place she could afford to live.

She said when her kids were growing up, it was common to “open and window and hear screaming and fighting” coming from the street or other homes. More than once, she saw police chasing someone through nearby yards.

The neighborhood has historically had a high crime rate among youth, along with substance use and other issues stemming from poverty. According to recent city data, the Hampshire Street neighborhood represents less than half a square mile out of 66 square miles in Auburn, but generally makes up a quarter of all police service calls.

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The data led the city to establish the Auburn PAL Center on nearby Chestnut Street, which has grown into an essential service in the neighborhood.

Salt & Light has been establishing events in Chestnut Park and worked collaboratively with the PAL Center, Conant said. The center provides daily meals and after-school programming for teenagers, a needed service in the area, but Conant said Salt & Light is only seeking to supplement what PAL is doing.

“We really want this to be something different than that, and just work in conjunction,” she said.

While Salt & Light raises funds, it has been using the nearby Auburn Church of the Nazarene for meetings, which Conant said she appreciates. At the same time, however, this can be a deterrent to some who might not feel comfortable joining.

Conant said Salt & Light will focus on four “pillars of health,” which include spiritual, physical, emotional and financial, and work across generations to get at some of the root causes of neighborhood issues stemming from poverty.

In an email to the Sun Journal, Conant wrote she envisions Salt & Light as “a safe place for our youth, teens, young adults and parents to learn and thrive.”

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“We will become the center for heart, hope and healing for all who walk through our welcoming doors,” she added.

Coming up, the group is planning to host a sledding event in February, with planning for a scavenger hunt and other events coming shortly.

Auburn Mayor Jason Levesque said the city has had some initial talks with Salt & Light, but he is hoping for more.

“I love community groups that come together on their own with motivation and passion,” he said.

Know someone with a deep well of unlimited public spirit? Someone who gives his or her time to make the community better? Nominate him or her for Kudos. Send a name and the place where the person does good deeds to reporter Andrew Rice at [email protected]


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