Dynamic new youth center built for teens by teens 

Anthony Decontreras and Julie Yim say UTEC changed their lives for the better.

By Rita Savard

From a two-room meeting place to a model three-story education complex, The United Teen Equality Center has given thousands of teens an education and an alternative to life on the streets.

Today, UTEC’s army of angels is better equipped than ever to empower the city’s at-risk-youth thanks to a major $8.5 million reuse project that transformed a dilapidated 1839 church building into the first LEED-platinum certified facility in the Merrimack Valley.

The new and improved UTEC opens its doors to the public Tuesday, Nov. 13, unveiling a three-story complex now housing multimedia rooms for sound recording, new classrooms, a dance space, performing arts hall with a theater-sized projection screen that can be rented out for public use, new kitchen, gym and a recreation lounge.

“It’s amazing to see the transformation,” said Saco Long, a UTEC outreach worker who’s been at the center for 10 years.

“I’ve seen this place grow from two rooms to this unbelievable building,” he said. “Now we’re positioned to help so many more kids.”

Since 1999, UTEC has been serving about 1,000 city teens each year, arming them with a GED, valuable workforce skills and a strong support system of caring youth workers to help guide kids through the challenges. 

Some of the youth workers are former students, who found an extended family at UTEC when running with gangs became a dead-end road.

“Kids need a place where they can feel safe, and know that they have people willing to listen to and stand behind them,” Long said. “UTEC is that place.”


The transformation of the former St. Paul’s parish on Hurd Street also makes UTEC the oldest building in the country with a high-level platinum Green Building distinction. 

The LEED green building rating system was developed and administered by the U.S. Green Building Council — a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit coalition of building industry leaders — with a mission to promote design and construction practices that reduce negative environmental impacts.

UTEC’s addition was built on the existing historic building (many of the beautiful stained glass windows and historic brick work is visible on the inside of the center), its old slate roof was swapped out for 147 solar panels, a thermal chimney was added as well as a passive air-cooling system, an electric car charging station and maximum access to natural daylight with plenty of energy efficient windows.  

“We kept all the old materials and found new ways to use them,” Long added. 

The slate roof is now a message board behind the center’s reception desk. Old chairs left for trash were turned into a creative art project adorning the recreation room ceiling. And hundreds of old chalk board erasers serve as the base for the front desk.

A respectful nod to the past and a glance into the future.

Anthony and Julie show Howl a beautiful new UTEC, including a performing arts hall that can be rented for public use.

What spotlights the new 8,000-square-foot addition, said UTEC Chief Innovation Officer Derek Mitchell, is that it wasn’t just created for teens.

“It’s a place they helped build,” Mitchell said.

From painting, cleaning, construction and finding creative new ways to reuse pieces of the building’s past, UTEC’s current teen members can feel proud of the legacy they’re leaving for future generations.

Funding for construction came, in part, from grants and donations, including more than $2 million in federal Recovery Act funds.

The dynamic new center doubles UTEC’s capacity to serve teens in need. And by spring of 2013, UTEC will open a public cafe run exclusively by the teens. 

“They’re creating something we can all be proud of and learn something from,” Mitchell said.  

The grand opening of the new and improved United Teen Equality Center begins at 4 pm, Tuesday, Nov. 13, at 34 Hurd St. Tickets for the event, which include a building tour, reception and dinner, can be purchased here.


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HOWL Street Team

Exploring everything from food and shopping to arts and entertainment so you can experience the best of what Greater Lowell has to offer.