The first year after Manuel Gomes emigrated from Cape Verde as a 12-year-old, he never made it out of his Dorchester neighborhood, not even to downtown Boston.
He stuck close to home because he did not know English, confined to Bowdoin-Geneva streets he knew were dangerous.
“It was so easy to jump into the wrong crowd of friends,” the now 20-year-old Bridgewater State University student said. “All of a sudden, I wasn’t behaving, not getting good grades, not doing anything positive.”
But then a seventh-grade pal invited him to come along to the Teen Center at St. Peter Church in Dorchester. With new friends from that afterschool program, he went on a spring break trip to New York.
“I’d never left Dorchester, and all of a sudden I saw this big city, the stores, the Statue of Liberty,” he said. “I wanted to see more, experience more, enjoy more.”
And with new resolve, he got all A’s and B’s on his first report card as a freshman at Boston International High School.
“I don’t like being told what to do. But if I’m allowed to experience something new, I learn — a lot,” Gomes told teenagers, youth workers, and officials in front of the Bowdoin Street building where, at 13, he found the drive to do better. He is one of hundreds of youths whose lives have been touched by the teen center, which celebrated 10 years of service Wednesday to the Bowdoin-Geneva neighborhood.
The center provides homework assistance, recreation, college preparation, and above all, a safe space for the middle- and high-schoolers of Bowdoin-Geneva.
It all began in 2003, when 12 students gathered after school to study in the St. Peter School basement with Paulo De Barros, who was then a teacher at Jeremiah E. Burke High School, and Brother Celestino “Tino” Arias of St. Peter.
“My kids didn’t have anywhere safe to be when their parents were at work,” said De Barros, who now directs the center. “Having a youth center had always been my dream.”
In two weeks’ time, 68 children had joined De Barros and Arias’s basement crew. Today, the teen center uses the entire school building, serving 135 teenagers daily. Over the course of a year, more than 500 teenagers walk through the doors.
In the past decade, 300 children from the center have gone on to college. This year, there are 24 graduating seniors: 21 are going on to college, one is entering the US Navy, and two will begin electrician apprenticeships.
“I’ve seen nervous middle schoolers who walked into [the center] graduate with confidence,” said the Rev. Jack Ahern, the pastor who oversees Dorchester’s three parishes, including St. Peter. “When you expect greatness, kids will achieve even more than you’d think.” One of those graduates is 18-year-old Elisa Do Souto, who emigrated from Cape Verde five years ago and graduated this year as valedictorian of her class at Burke.
“St. Peter helped me reach my full potential,” said Do Souto, who will attend Bridgewater State next year on a full tuition scholarship. “It has become my second house.”
Both she and Gomes worked as mentors at the center, taking up their posts in a counseling program that De Barros and Arias fostered.
This teen mentoring component, Arias said, has been integral to the program’s longevity.
Arias, the religious brother, said, “If a brother gives advice, well, OK. But if a teen gives it, it’s cool.”
Over the years, the center has sponsored student trips to Washington, New York, Cape Cod, and other locations where Dorchester youth, as De Barros said, “can get the violence off their minds.”
The program also works with law enforcement, and each month, Boston police officers play basketball with the centers' youths.
“And we get our butts whipped,” said a smiling William Gross, Boston police superintendent and night commander.
Gross called the teen center “the external parents for this whole neighborhood.”
“We can’t arrest the [neighborhood’s] problems away,” he said, referring to gang-related crime that remains high in Dorchester, especially in the summer. “We need to get to these kids long before they join gangs.”
Gomes aspires to become a Boston police officer himself, watching over the streets where he was once led astray.
“This center is the reason why I’m not on the street doing drugs or doing time in jail, like hundreds in my neighborhood,” he said. “Helping someone to see something different is the best way to contribute to the future.”