DARIEN — Janice Marzano never thought she’d spend her life working with kids.

It was a series of unexpected events and a tragedy that landed her at the helm of the Darien Depot, where she’s worked with local youths for the past 17 years in her role as executive director at the teen center.

A Stamford native, Marzano moved to Darien with her husband when her son was two years old and quickly immersed herself in the community.

“I got involved in Cub Scouts and ended up being Scoutmaster and Chairman of the Board for my son’s cabin. So I knew a lot of kids from there,” Marzano said, unphased by a group of sixth graders fresh out of school yelling over a game of poker in the adjacent room of the Depot on Monday.

Not long after moving to town, Marzano and her husband were divorced, leaving her in need of a job that would still allow her to support her three young children.

“I became a lunch lady. That was supposed to be for a little while. I ended up being a lunch lady for a number of years,” she remembered.

She served lunch at Holmes and Tokeneke elementary schools, gaining popularity among generations of the town’s youngest students. On top of that, Marzano began working summers with the Darien Youth Commission, running a program for 7th, 8th and 9th grade students.

At the time, around 2000, the Depot sought to attract more middle school-age students because their schedules were more flexible than their slightly older peers -- many of whom spent their afternoons and weekends on Darien High School athletic fields.

Marzano was recruited to the Depot.

“I started coming here in the afternoon to help the guy who ran the Depot at the time, Ben, with the 8th graders. I liked it. Then he said, ‘Why don’t you come and help out at night, too?’” said Marzano, just as one of the group of the poker-playing sixth-graders shouted goodbye to Janice as he sped out the door to meet his mother.

She became increasingly invested in the teen center until, in 2002, tragedy struck.

“Ant then Ben died. He was 29-years-old,” Marzano reflected.

“Ben was a kid himself. The kids who were hanging there at the time, he was their hero. He was their best friend. They loved him.”

She recalled delivering the crushing news to the group of teenagers whose mentor had died suddenly of an aneurysm. But the bravery of the teens, Marzano said, was especially noteworthy. They rented a bus and as a group traveled to Bisbano’s native Danbury, each delivering a handwritten note to Ben’s mom.

“It was a real bonding moment. I decided I’m not going to leave these kids,” Marzano said, though she admits she never expected to be here so long, now going into her 15th year.

Since taking over, Marzano has made some necessary changes while keeping the essence of the Depot the same.

During her early years, she worked to ban cigarette smoking on the premises. Four years later in 2006 she was successful. The result was a slight shift in clientele, Marzano said, though the majority of Depot visitors was, and remains, Darien high school-aged students. The Depot is host to a wide array of student groups and events, including the Student League of Darien, an LGBT group, Funbusters from the YMCA and Students Against Destructive Decisions. A group form Abilis uses the facility on Tuesdays and band nights and “raves” — drug free and alcohol free parties for teens — are common.

It’s a full schedule — one that earned the Depot the 2016 Connecticut Youth Services Bureau award for programming — and Marzano is quick to point out that, though she is the figure often associated with the teen center, she is not the sole employee.

“We have so many people who work here and people think it’s just me,” said Marzano.

She is supported by a part time staff — including Darien brothers John and Matt Miceli, both of whom Marzano has known since they were in the first grade — and a Board of Directors.

But it is the 60-member Student Governing Board that Darien’s apart from other teen centers.

“That’s the group of kids that plans the events and basically runs the Depot,” Marzano explained.

Unlike other teen centers, at which the managing adults plan and operate events, the teens at the Depot are tasked with managing the building’s schedule and are expected to contribute to fundraising.

At a time when so many teen centers are foundering and struggling to find a crowd, the Darien Depot has continued to thrive.

“The kids basically own this place,” said Marzano.

justin.papp@scni.com; @justinjpapp1