Photos by Shannon Straney
Eleven-year-old Traevon “Trae” Vautrin is a very busy intern. In the downstairs studio of The Sanctuary for Independent Media in Troy, he darts from the printer to the couch to the computer. He’s meant to be on the air in 20 minutes. He’s scribbling on papers and watching the clock as Hershel, the large dog-in-residence with drooping ears and (what can only be assumed by his warm and friendly nature) a heart of gold, watches him helplessly.
He stops fast in front of the dog in a comical, Norman Rockwell-esque moment.
“Hershel!” he wails, gripping handfuls of paper. “They’re killin’ me smalls, they’re killin’ me.”
Vautrin is here five days a week, working after school from 2:30 to 7:30 PM. He is also behind the scenes for special events and programs such as the seasonal Uptown Summer work program when school is out. As a young person growing up in Troy, an area that catches a bad rap in terms of safety and security, Vautrin has seen the worst and best parts of the city and his stronghold is the Sanctuary.
He has more than enough to do but he thrives under the expectations of his role. “I get to think that I’m doing a big part to help the community,” he says shyly.
He’s been coming to the Sanctuary for three years, going on four this summer, and is currently exploring the world of sound engineering with his mentors Steve Pierce and Jonah Moberg on the Sanctuary’s low-power radio station, WOOC 105.3 FM. He has shadowed for a few sessions, including the new live show, Hudson Mohawk Magazine, which covers local news and public affairs. Now he’s a regularly scheduled engineer on Tuesdays and Fridays. That’s in addition to being responsible for the community and youth calendar and script planning.
“It’s gotten a little bit more confusing,” he shrugs, referencing the soundboard, “but it’s quick to learn, too.”
When it’s down to the wire, he’s confident and assured. Friday afternoon, Vautrin was behind the controls on a solo mission, engineering an interview with Melissa Bromley and Lovonia Mallory. He slips on a pair of headphones, which look giant on his head, and gets down to business. Focused on the buttons and levels of the soundboard, he fiddles with the microphones, making random sounds and beats to test the sound. When Bromley attempts to guide him, he’s all spunk.
“I know, its just that Trae was trying to test something real quick,” he reassures Bromley. “Look, you have me starting to talk in third person again!”
He throws his hands up, letting them down slowly in a ‘settle down’ motion. “I’m gonna say ‘go’,” he says softly.
Suddenly he is directing his interview team through a thorough mic check and pointing out a notepad where he has written “5” and “10”, symbolizing minute warnings–he’ll be tapping on each as their airtime runs out. It’s as much for his benefit as it is theirs. For Vautrin, one of the best parts of engineering an interview is learning about new people and projects in the community.
“You get into what they’re talking about and then you start thinking about it and you lose track of time,” he explains. “That’s why I came up with that little system.”
Vautrin is wise beyond his years–with a vocabulary, schedule and list of responsibilities that seem more fitting for someone twice his age, but he handles it with ease.
“When he first came, people around here said, ‘Oh, he’s too young, he can’t intern.’ But he just made himself available in every way he could and now we need him. He’s so important. It just shows what a person with incredible strength and perseverance can do,” The Sanctuary’s education coordinator Branda Miller said.
His old teacher, Jillian Hirsch, had originally introduced him to the community center. He came to check out her work on the tile mosaic mural of Freedom Square in Troy–a stage and gathering space used for festivals and concerts, across the street from the Sanctuary–and never really left. The artist and educator has also worked on a number of murals throughout the local area, including Capital Roots in Troy, Sheridan Hollow in Albany, The Roarke Center in Rensselaer, and the Trinity Alliance of the Capital Region in Albany.
Vautrin wants to be an architect when he gets older, but he has quite a penchant for reporting and writing. One of his biggest interests lies in the interview process. He’s hungry for information and unique perspectives.
“You get all these different opinions and you never know what people are gonna say, it’s a surprise,” he explains. “People will talk about how some kids on the street are so good and then some people talk about how they’re so bad. You have this scale, I guess it depends on their experience.”
“I remember, during Uptown Summer, I was walking around interviewing people and trying to talk about what goes on around the summer. Since kids have nothing else to do, the pools aren’t open, there’s nothing. They would steal from corner stores. I had one encounter once, me and my little sister. Some kid came up and drank her chocolate milk and gave it back to her. She was like three at the time and he was at least 14 or something.” Vautrin’s face sours disapprovingly, but after a short pause, he shifts gears.
“But there’s not much programs. The Y charges $60 a month for each kid. Troy Boys and Girls Club charges [$60]. It’s hard for some parents who can’t afford it.”
Whether you chalk it up to his experience at the Sanctuary, or a natural instinct, Vautrin is patient and yearns to explore multiple perspectives of a situation. When an action takes place, he’s there with questions.
Since Jan. 2, he has been running his own newspaper, called T.V. News* (based on his initials) describing community events and news stories from around the Capital Region, depending on the week. He always provides a page for the weather, another is dedicated to information about the Sanctuary.
“I had this crazy idea, right?” he says, as he suddenly runs off to rifle through file cabinets. He’s looking for his archive. Some copies are filed away there, others are kept out for people to read upstairs and the originals are saved on his hard drive. He’ll be posting the five issues published so far on the Sanctuary website soon. “The Sanctuary really only has the website, and that’s just stuff about the Sanctuary, and the radio. What if people don’t have access to that?”
“I want to get the word out more,” he adds, thinking about the future of the paper. “I might go to corner stores and put the papers out and pass them out around town.”
He hands out at least 10 copies of new issues at Monday night radio show meetings–at precisely 7:07 PM. “If you say seven, people come late but if you tell people 7:07…” he trails off, raising his eyebrows with a grin.
“It takes forever to publish,” he laments, but every aspect of the paper seems to excite him. As a one-man army, it’s a project that will take him a solid portion of a week. He plans news headlines on Thursdays, doing the writing and fact-checking through Friday. Before publication on Monday night, Vautrin does another sweep check for updates and changes to the news and weather. After publication, he’s on the prowl for more news and the cycle begins again.
He’s on top of his game, scanning local major stories for his front page such as the recent Schenectady mudslide or the Troy homicide in December, which dominated Vautrin’s first issue. “That’s really depressing. Just to warn you,” he says as he hands over a copy. But even if it’s sad, people need to be informed about their community.
Before heading to the studio Friday afternoon, he was hard at work in the computer lab, putting together the top stories for issue five. He’s enthralled with the multi-agency drug raid that took place in Troy Thursday night (Feb. 1) and is keeping a careful eye on the new legal plant-based drug Kratom.
“That story is five pages!” he exclaims. “They put it at the top class like with heroin and cocaine and stuff, it really messes with your system. But it hasn’t made it to the corner stores yet.”
While most of the information compiled in TV News is based on what he has heard or read, some is based on first-person observations.
“They raided seven different places–all the supposable [sic] biggest ones. It’s crazy,” he says of the raid. He had watched a portion of it unfold on his ride home that night. “They had the M-16s pointed at the ground while people were coming out and they had all unmarked cop cars surrounding the place. Some were marked with their lights on but some weren’t. I was really surprised to see the FBI though. I haven’t seen the FBI. This is the first time, like, in real life.”
Some stories crack him up. He’s still laughing about the billboard off exit 5 on I-90 that was put up in late January with a massive typo reading, “Welcome to the Captial Region.” He got his aunt to snap a photo for the Sanctuary website.
This place is his home and the love he shows for it is unabashedly genuine. The people who volunteer, the guests that visit and the projects they keep up seem to always be on his mind. Any possible attention Vautrin sees coming his way is diverted to the Sanctuary and the community.
When Alt photographer Shannon Straney tells him this is only her second time visiting the cozy repurposed church, his eyes light up. “Oh, you should check out our Nature Lab, we have an event coming up.”
“I like when we have events, it’s way more busy and there are more things that need to be done,” he explains. “On regular days, there’s not that much. But it’s still fun every day. I get to meet a whole bunch of new people.”
The Sanctuary has helped Vautrin explore his far-reaching curiosities. In programs like Uptown Summer and the WOOC radio station, he meets interviewees and guest speakers from a wide variety of careers, cultures and perspectives. It’s an educational gold mine. Spend enough time with Vautrin throughout the day and you’ll learn a lot: Troy history, environmental news, programming and technological tips he has picked up along the way. He’s a sponge of information, always prepared to share what he has learned with his community.
“Traevon is our most epic intern. He benefits and we benefit, it’s a beautiful thing,” Miller says.
*TV News has since been changed to YMSnews (Youth Media Sanctuary news) to reflect the paper’s involvement with the Sanctuary.