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8 Coleman Square, Howard Beach, NY 11414

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STARS Youth Center Supports Young People Of Howard Beach

Queens Chronicle
June 8, 2000 - Page 42

It was about five years ago when Frances Scarantino, a lifelong Howard Beach resident whose parents immigrated from Sicily, had something of an epiphany. Why not establish an activity group for the neighborhood kids, who had until that time, been deprived of any kind of organized recreational outlet?

She was inspired by her own experiences as a teenager and those of her brother, who is nine years younger. Neither felt that Howard Beach offered a very wide spectrum of activities geared to young people looking for something fun to do in their spare time.

"We thought that things were limited, and my brother didn't have a drivers license at the time," Scarantino recalled.

While running a cheerleading program out of Our Lady of Grace Church in Howard Beach, she was approached by some of her charges, who voiced an interest in doing things besides the traditional bill of fare served up by local schools.

It was then that Scarantino hit on the idea of founding a youth group. She convened an ad hoc circle of advisors, who would later become the STARS board of directors, and held a brainstorming session on what could feasibly be done to redress the problem of under served and unengaged youth in the neighborhood.

They decided to form an organization with a broader scope than a simple after school sports club, one which emphasized and encouraged both development and community service, but leavened with a healthy dose of fun.

Hence the acronym STARS, which stands for Striving to Achieve and Reach Success.

Once they'd settled on a concept, Scarantino began the hard work of marshaling the resources needed to realize her vision, soliciting charitable donations from local benefactors and searching out available space to house the proposed group.

"The first thing we did was find out about how to do it officially. In 1996 we filed for incorporation with the state as a not-for-profit."

While awaiting bureaucratic seal of approval, Scarantino started hosting local events, including arts and crafts sessions and the teen dance in the local park. She also sponsored a children and adult fashion show fundraiser.

The group leased a space in 1997, but soon outgrew its first home and moved into new quarters at 8 Coleman Square in Howard Beach, which remains its headquarters.

Since its inception, STARS has evolved beyond its original parameters, expanding to include a whole array of activities, from peer counseling to youth basketball. Programs cater to both boys and girls, whose ages range from 3-20.

The center also features space and mirrors for dance instructions, which has proved to be one of its most popular groups of courses, incorporating as it does the contemporary dance style known as hip-hop that has become something of a fad among teenagers.

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the stars organization is the degree of trust Scarantino places in her kids.

"Most of my volunteers are kids themselves, some 19 or 20 years old. Marylou teaches dance - she was a cheerleader of mine," Scarantino said.

"I taught them how to teach a class. Sometimes the older kids will read stories to the younger kids."

The group has also implemented educational and career building activities, which provide instruction and hands-on experience in writing and fundraising, among other things.

An informally dubbed "self-esteem team" was formed to provide advice and morale- boosting to teenagers between the ages of 13 and 18.

"I directed the self-esteem team in our discussions. By mid-year the group took over," Scarantino said.

"They meet every two weeks and discuss topics like body image, drugs and alcohol, dating, and coping with parents and restrictions."

Scarantino's philosophy is that the benefits of empowering kids, both to the community and to the kids themselves, justify any risks incurred by assigning them so much responsibility.

"When you give them the responsibility for it, they feel it's theirs. To think that, they need to take responsibility," Scarantino explained.

"If a project fails, they didn't do enough research. If it succeeds, it's because of them. I'm there to guide them and to be there for them when they're growing up."

In that spirit, the kids help to do the administrative work around the office. They have also undertaken a slate of community service projects, among them a clean-up of the Hamilton Beach side of Frank M. Charles Memorial Park in Howard Beach, for which they garnered an award and cash prize from Fleet Bank of $15,000. The check was presented by New York Yankees slugger Derek Jeter.

The group has also won plaudits from the Points of Light Foundation, founded by former President George Bush, as well as letters of commendation from President Bill Clinton.

The group is currently the beneficiary of two state grants, and regularly receives smaller contributions. However, they can always use more support.

To that end, they have tapped community leaders like Joe Addabbo, who serves as the groups vice president, to help raise awareness about it's mission.

Frances came up with the idea of a youth center and I told her I thought she would be filling a void," Addabbo said.

"You see younger residents on the streets and being chased out of parks. I thought it was a great idea to get activists together to form a foundation for youth participation."

Addabbo also stressed the importance of including entire families in the organization's activities and keeping costs low.

"I didn't think it should just be a drop off for kids. We wanted family-oriented activities," Addabbo said.

"Early on we did a graffiti clean-up, and the kids got to clean up something in thier area. There was a cosmetic improvement and it created a sense of pride in the community, which has a domino effect."

Addabbo also proposed the "Helping Hands Program," in which volunteers help the elderly and infirm by performing household chores like snow shoveling and shopping.

Although the self-effacing Scarantino is more comfortable reserving praise for others, the results she has gotten with STARS are a testament to the amount of hard work she has put into her organization. That is no small feat given that she works full time for the city's Office of Management and Budget, devoting her spare time to her kids.

The young members of S.T.A.R.S. - easily recognizable with their star insignias emblazoned on their shirts - welcome anyone to their ranks who can make the time to participate.

"It's not just Howard Beach or Ozone Park. If they can get here, they're welcome," Scarantino said.

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