Long a local bastion of youth culture, the historic Phoenix Theater has transformed over time into a community center serving youth in a variety of ways, including free piano and guitar lessons for kids who might not otherwise be able to afford them.

But music isn't the only outlet offered to youth at the historic theater. Founded more than a decade ago, and run purely through volunteer efforts, the Phoenix Teen Clinic has served more than 1,500 youth, providing free clinical services that family nurse practitioner and clinic director Cheryl Negrin describes as dealing mainly with "sensitive services," like counseling for birth control options and checks for sexually transmitted infections, as well as annual exams.

From 3:30 to 6:00 p.m. each Thursday, Negrin also counsels youth, from those in stable homes to others engaging in risky lifestyles who lack support at home, to others who are homeless, on a variety of health-related issues like drug and alcohol abuse, nutrition and "how to get the help they may need when life is getting out of hand or their behaviors become very risky."

The majority of clients at the clinic are teens who lack health insurance.

The clinic has a good track record for helping youth recover from critical injuries and problematic lifestyles, Negrin said, but despite, that, the Phoenix has been ignored over the years by much of the community. Negrin speculated this may be because many perceive the venue as a place that "harbors bad kids."

Still, there are some staunch supporters in the community who help keep the programs going, such as John Crowley of Aqus Cafe, an organization which recently hosted the third annual Halloween Bash to raise funds for the Phoenix's programs.

Crowley said Negrin's organization helps remove barriers to critical information: "The clinic offers important services that no one else is providing to teens here in Petaluma," he said. "In some cases it may be the only place where some kids are able to get advice on the difficult issues they're facing, and that's why it's very important."

It is meeting the needs of such youth, who may lack support from their community or family, that most concerns Negrin, which is why she is starting to reach out to other community organizations for help and collaboration.

One such organization is a new counseling group that has sprung up in Petaluma, the Petaluma Peer Recovery Project, which provides support groups for people living with mental illness. The groups are led by others who have experience living with mental health issues. As well, the group provides resources for family members.

Negrin is working with a leader of that organization, Edward Reifsnyder, to find ways to provide additional counseling services to some of the youth who show up at the Phoenix clinic.

For Reifsnyder, it's a cause that's close to his heart: "I myself went down the same route that many of these adolescents are currently on," he said. "It took me down a path of drug addiction, homelessness, and crime that I barely survived. In my experience most people aren't as lucky as I was to make it out of that atmosphere, and I believe the work we are doing can (play) a major role in assisting a large population of our future community develop as a healthy, functional entity."

Reifsnyder says he sees the work done at the Phoenix Teen Clinic as providing an outlook that might otherwise be unavailable to troubled youth. "People like Cheryl act as a resource for at-risk youth [who] are turning to suicide and drugs in great part due to a lack of their being familiar with any alternative route in life," he said.

"As far as integrating our resources with the clinic, we've been wanting to start a youth support group/program for not just those who may be suffering from mental illness (often undiagnosed at their age) but also at-risk youth in general."

Negrin is mutually appreciative of what the Peer Recovery Project can offer kids in crisis, and is enthusiastic about the partnership, which she hopes to launch with an art project that will bring youth from the two groups together. "I'm hoping that Edward's group [can] be one of those supportive and cooperative groups to aid youth troubled with life-altering changes and no help to handle it," she said.

To learn more about the Phoenix, the Teen Clinic and other programs, or to get involved, visit www.thephoenixtheater.com/programs.

(Contact Liam Nelson at argus@arguscourier.com.)