Daira Flores was just tired.
It had been two years since she returned to the United States from Honduras, chasing the American dream while trying to escape her tortuous reality. But the 22-year-old’s fresh start was starting to feel like life in repeat. The father of her second child was abusive, like her first boyfriend. Her living situation was tenuous at best. She wasn’t working and wasn’t in school.
She was tired of struggling to live and angry that she had to wrestle with life. The rage, the drugs, the fights insulated the hurt, creating a barrier from the rest of the world.
One day, as Flores wandered the streets, her 14-month-old daughter, Noanii, in tow, someone told her about Roca, a Chelsea nonprofit surviving on private grants and government money that helps high-risk young people in Greater Boston. She hoped to find relief from the fatigue.
So often, the intractable problems of youth in urban environs — drugs, guns, gangs, jail — are regarded as the burden of young men. But there are high-risk young women who prove equally difficult to reach, and these are the young women Roca recently began targeting, using the lessons learned from the work it does with young men.
‘Shut the door in our faces, but we’re going to keep on it.’Molly Baldwin, founder and chief executive of Roca
Many are young mothers who have been marginalized their entire lives. Working with them is as much about avoiding jail time as it is about breaking the cycle of poverty. It’s about creating a better future, because healthy parents influence the health of children.
Young women and girls represent nearly 30 percent of all juvenile arrests nationally but receive only 2 percent of services, and because there is a lack of alternatives, young women and girls find themselves in jail and on probation longer for lesser crimes than their male counterparts, according to the Center for Young Women’s Development, a San Francisco advocacy group.
Roca’s transitional employment program is built knowing the women will relapse, and it focuses on relentless outreach and engagement to change behavior and find jobs.
Roca tested its first model for high-risk young mothers in 2009, calling it the Circle of Care project. The organization began fine-tuning that model and, now, about 70 women aged 16 to 24 are the subject of relentless outreach.
“We’re just on you. You can tell us to bug off. Don’t answer phone calls. Don’t come to programming. Shut the door in our faces, but we’re going to keep on it,” said Molly Baldwin, Roca’s founder and chief executive.
Traditional ways of helping young mothers — home visits and youth development programs — don’t work with high-risk young women, who are “not ready, willing, or able to participate,” Baldwin said.
Many have dropped out of school, are unemployed or underemployed, suffered abuse or neglect, live in unstable homes, are involved with the court system, have undiagnosed mental health issues, or are immigrants or refugees isolated from family and friends. They often are not comfortable letting someone in their home.
As a youth worker, it’s Reyna Alfaro’s job to be that constant irritant that Baldwin mentioned. She was the first person Flores saw when she walked into the beige building that is home to Roca, near the Chelsea police station.
“I thought she was slow,” Flores recently said of her first few encounters with Alfaro.
Armed with a degree in psychology and Spanish, Alfaro arrived at Roca two years ago ready to volunteer — but wound up getting a job. She had no idea what a “high-risk youth” was and had never worked with young people before, but she had a passion to help.
The 28-year-old’s family emigrated from El Salvador to East Boston 20 years ago. It was, she said, difficult growing up with parents and older siblings who remained faithful to their Central American traditions.
Alfaro described her parents as “fanatical” Catholics who expected her to get married, have children, and become a homemaker.
Because she dreamed of something different, her brothers told her she “wasn’t a normal woman, and I struggled because of it,” she said.
These are the stories Alfaro shares with the 24 young women who make up her caseload, using her life as an example of perseverance.
“A lot of my job is just driving around,” she says, climbing into the driver’s seat of a white van.
Alfaro finds her girls however she can. She waits in front of three-deckers without buzzers and tailgates in when someone opens the main door. She knocks on doors to remind her girls to be ready for family night activities. Then, she returns to get them and their children.
Every day, she drives the city’s main thoroughfares, keeping an eye out for girls walking to the store or getting their nails done. “I always drive this whole thing,” Alfaro says turning onto Broadway, as the sun begins to set, illuminating the sky with blinding yellow light. “I have three girls and they always walk this street.”
It’s also the route she is taking to visit a 17-year-old with a 1-year-old son who lives in a public housing complex.
The teen, whose identity was shielded by the youth worker, lives with her boyfriend in an apartment kept immaculately clean. But the atmosphere is littered with drugs and violence. Alfaro says Roca workers have been forced to call social services twice.
“He just got arrested for beating her up,” she says, pulling into a complex of bleak brick buildings with large empty courtyards. “She provokes him, and she brags about it.”
The visit lasts just five minutes.
“Right now, every time I come in, it’s just to see if she’s still alive and let her know I’m still here,” Alfaro says, explaining that she subtly searched the girl’s face and arms for bruises.
Still, Alfaro says she sees potential in this young woman. She sees potential in all of them. She saw it with Flores, who said it was hard to accept that such optimism could be genuine when she first met Alfaro.
Flores was bouncing back and forth from a friend’s house in Dorchester and a shelter, and her self-esteem was almost nonexistent, in large part because of the loss of her right eye — and because of what led up to it, and what followed. Her eye was destroyed during a fight about nine years ago with the father of her first daughter, Tenssy, who remains in Honduras.
The man came home drunk, high, and hungry. Flores was at the stove cooking, a sight that, she said, enraged him. He shoved her, she shoved back, a fight ensued. “I was so scared of him,” she said.
It wasn’t the first time he’d hit her — that happened soon after their daughter was born — but, she said, this fight was different. He cut her right arm with a knife, threw her to the floor, kicked her. Then, she said, he picked up a metal broomstick handle.
“He was trying to hit me in the back, but I turned and he hit me in the face,” she recalled. “That’s when my eye popped. Mind you, the baby was in the house.”
But Flores said she doesn’t harbor ill will toward him. Karma, she said, will determine his fate, just as it determined hers. “Look at me now,” she said. “I’m going through a lot of positive stuff in my life.”
Flores now rents a room in Dorchester from a woman who watches Noanii while she works. She takes two buses and a train to get to Chelsea and Roca, which has contracts with the city that keep the young people engaged in everything from landscaping to cleaning.
Flores recently earned her GED and got a second job at Old Navy. Now, she wants an apartment, a car, and a college degree.
“I wish that every day,” she said.