Story by Sara Paul
When Annie Colonna worked in the Warwick Community Center’s After School Teen Center, she had one particularly difficult student. He was a young lad, not a bad kid, but he simply would not cease swearing, misbehaving and just being plain disruptive. Annie was sad that she had to ask him to leave maybe once a week or so.
One can imagine her sincere surprise when the gentleman, as a college grad, returned to the Center to inquire about a job. The mature man, who had benefitted from the Community Center programs and from Annie’s tutelage, went on to become the Head Counselor of the Center’s Summer Program and is now pursuing his Master’s Degree in teaching.
This is just one example of the successes in a sea of challenges experienced by Annie Colonna, now the Director of Prevention Services.
Humanitarian, artist, Yoga enthusiast, and devoted community member, Annie is passionate about helping others, particularly children and young adults as they navigate their way through a complicated world.
“I try to impart to the youth here that their voices matter and that they can make a difference,” Annie said.
More than a Decade of Leadership at the Community Center
Annie began working at the Community Center in 1997 before going on to the Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Council in Goshen in 2005 for nine years, as she wanted to do more work on county and state level. She returned to the Community Center in 2014 and immediately got to work, focusing on a new direction for the Coalition.
“My concern was the real work we needed to do and what we were doing to address not just the opioid epidemic, but also the underage drinking and marijuana problem among our youth,” noted Annie, who got right to work, facilitating such programs as the Prevention Coalition, and the Youth Advisory Board.
“We take a lot of kids under our wing and give them a home, a place to belong to. We are getting kids to put down their phones and interact with each other,” said Colonna, detailing a Youth Bureau Conference where four young adults from the Center spoke about the important connections made at the Community Center.
“That’s what we try to nurture and foster here, and when I see those kinds of achievements, our youth blossoming and becoming spokespeople, for me, that’s heartwarming,” Colonna smiles.
The Center is also involved in local school initiatives such as the Red Ribbon campaign, which helps support alcohol and drug abuse awareness for youth, and also “Guiding Good Choices,” a five-week education program for parents of middle school age students.
An Invigorating Movement with True Purpose
Even the most enthusiastic and dedicated employee can go through periods of frustration and need a recharge. Annie is no exception.
In 2017, the then overwhelmed Director of the Prevention Coalition was wondering if her efforts were enough, if the work was meaningful, if the job was getting done.
It was a serendipitous moment when the young Ryan Caldwell walked through the door. Ryan had an idea for an event he called “Break the Stigma.” It was an idea for people to join together to dispel the stigma of addiction and to educate people about where to get help for substance use disorder. Annie was immediately on board.
“His enthusiasm and fresh ideas reinvigorated me in pushing forward,” she recalls.
Break the Stigma was a tremendous success with over 500 participants from all over Orange County in its first year. The second annual Walk held this past July attracted more than 200 people, mostly from Warwick.
A Warwick native, Ryan notes, “It was good for me because I was just a guy with a big idea. Annie made me feel super comfortable, and I was so relieved to hear that someone was willing to help me and get behind it.”
While the 29 year old started as a volunteer, he now holds a full-time post as Coalition Coordinator.
The Warwick Community Center houses many programs, workshops and classes for people of all ages.
The Summer Youth Leadership Academy, for example, is an intense, prestigious four-week program for individuals in sixth through ninth grades. Accepting only 15 new students per year, the Leadership Academy provides an opportunity for students to work on skills like team building and community service.
Participants meet with leaders in the community from such organizations as the District Attorney’s Office, the Warwick Police Department, and Supervisor Michael Sweeton’s office. They also get to have lunch with Mayor Michael Newhard.
The Center also offers Yoga and Tai Chi classes, the Art and Soul Summer Camp, and free community dinners, and is a venue for numerous music and theatrical performances.
An Accomplished Life, A Spiritual Journey
A Warwick resident since 1991, Annie is originally from Brooklyn. Born in 1958 and attending Brooklyn Catholic schools in the new Vatican II era, Annie credits the sisters for her inspiration to serve.
“The nuns really infused in us that we could make a difference, and that we needed to make a difference. Their message was that we were all one people and humans who should take care of each other,” remembers Annie who, as a young girl in the late 1960s, was uncomfortably aware of historic tragedies like the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. These atrocities did not sit well with the young Annie.
“I remember being very upset and my father told me not to worry, everything would be alright. And I knew that everything wouldn’t be alright; it was my awakening,” recalls Annie, who went on to pursue her college degree at SUNY Stony Brook, receiving a Bachelor’s in Art History.
With a passion for architectural preservation, she was a long time sculpture and ceramic artist, living and working in the NYC boroughs, making a living as a bookstore clerk and artist assistant.
When the southwest calling felt strong, Annie moved to New Mexico, a place she had always loved when visiting her family. She worked in an art gallery until the early 1990s before moving back east and settling in Warwick.
Meaningful & Beautiful Leisure
When Annie has a precious free moment, she is most definitely spending it wisely on her two great loves: Yoga and Art.
As a Yoga instructor at Community Center, she thinks of the exercise as prevention for adults.
“Yoga is near and dear to me because it’s a form of self-regulation. If you can control your breath, you can control your emotions, then you can control your actions,” said Annie, who teaches Youth Yoga in the summers.
“I really believe if you can regulate breath, your busy brain and the activities of the mind can slow down. That helps regulate emotions and actions and gives people another tool to help with stress,” Annie commented.
The art enthusiast also devotes a great of time to Pacem in Terris, a sculpture garden in Warwick, working with the organization since she moved to the area.
The garden, dedicated to the art and writings of Dr. Frederick Franck, for Annie, “… sends messages of peace, which is really important.”
Secrets to Success
A big proponent of collaboration and integration, Annie works closely with community members and organizations in her efforts to make the Center’s programs as effective as possible.
She states, “The best way to support a community is to recognize that many of us are working towards same goals, and I want to make sure that we are working in concert with each other.”
For more information on the Warwick Community Center, visit www.warwickvalleycommunitycenter.org.