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Adrian walker

ABCD’s Summerworks is more than a job

If there’s one thing John Drew never gets tired of, it’s his summer jobs program.

Drew has spent well over 40 years at Action for Boston Community Development, the antipoverty agency where he is the chief executive. ABCD’s good works are almost too many to mention here, but among those good deeds is introducing young people to the world of work.

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Boston is filled with examples of Summerworks grads who went on to success. “Billy Evans told me this was his first job,” Drew said Thursday of the city’s police commissioner. “Felix Arroyo was in this program as a teenager. So was Tito Jackson,” said Drew, referring to the city health chief and city counselor, respectively. “Of course, some of the kids have gone to jail, too.”

Drew was at the Prince Hall Lodge in Grove Hall, at a ceremony honoring the 1,300 young people who work for the agency this year. They make minimum wage, doing anything from picking up trash to counseling kids.

ABCD’s Summerworks is pretty much an institution. It is funded by a patchwork of local and state aid and private donations, much of which comes from the annual “Field of Dreams” fund-raiser at Fenway Park.

It is open to youths between 14 and 21, though most of them are teenagers. Many of them are low-income. In this year’s group, 101 are homeless, a number that seems to be trending upward. A companion program to Summerworks serves 13 year-olds. They’re too young to work, but go on field trips and learn about government.

Drew welcomes the opportunity to work with kids at a critical juncture in their lives.

“You want to get them before they lose the gleam in their eyes,” he said. “You want to get them before people start to tell them what they can’t do. We want this to be more than just a job.”

Franchesca Tejada was the type of young person Drew was speaking of. At 17, she shares a tiny motel room in Brighton — a state-funded shelter, really — with her parents, brother, and infant daughter.

They moved into the shelter about eight months ago. Her father is a dishwasher in a Back Bay restaurant; her mother doesn’t work. Franchesca just graduated from high school.

Her job counseling kids this summer wasn’t her first job, but it seemed to have left a deep impression. When I asked her what she had learned, she answered, “everything.” She’s headed to Bunker Hill Community College and wants to become a pediatrician.

“It’s a great program that helps us feel more comfortable about ourselves,” Tejada said. “We can help the community. It’s good group that helps us make friends. I learned how to interact with others.”

The ceremony Thursday was part graduation, part pep rally. Arroyo, Jackson, and state Representative Gloria Fox talked to the kids about staying in school and staying on track. Arroyo and Jackson reminisced about their days as ABCD youth workers roughly 20 years ago.

“The first summer I picked up trash,” said Jackson, who represents Roxbury. “The second year, I was a peer counselor at the Tobin [community school] gym.” Arroyo, who was a bit older when he was in the program, was also a peer counselor. Now the former city councilor is the city’s chief of health and human services.

ABCD officials are clearly disturbed that the youth in the program, though always disadvantaged, are starting to fight even longer odds. The rise in homelessness is worrisome, and Summerworks has fewer resources than the program once commanded. As is his habit, Drew was calling for more federal aid Thursday.

“Congress has walked away from our kids,” he said.

Jackson urged the teens to think big about their lives and possibilities. It’s not about where you are, he said, but where you want to go. “Your condition is not your conclusion,” Jackson told them. “You make it happen every day.”

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.
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