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The Podium

Safe havens for youths

When Manuel Gomes first arrived in Boston eight years ago, his future looked grim. He emigrated with his mother and two brothers, leaving other brothers and sisters home with family in the small island of Cape Verde off the western coast of Africa. Gomes spent his first few years in a small Dorchester apartment. Like many kids, he sought camaraderie. “I did not speak English and, with my new group of friends, I found myself getting into trouble a lot,” explained Gomes.

Manuel is not the only young person in our city that has found trouble. Sometimes faced with few options other than the immediately visible and the deep teenage need for acceptance, kids get in over their heads quickly. Year in and year out, summers bring a rash of violence in troubled Boston neighborhoods — often with tragic results, both for the young men and women finding themselves the perpetrators of such crime and for the innocent standing in the wrong place at the wrong time. And this summer is unfortunately no different, with reports showing a spike in violence already.

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The only way to shift away from the violence is to build an alternative culture, a culture of mentoring and positive leadership development. For years, summer jobs and programs have provided Boston’s at-risk youth with positive opportunities in which to invest their time. However like most years that funding is at risk in the Massachusetts Legislature. Recognizing that funding challenges will continue, there are other ways we can collaborate to provide meaningful learning opportunities for students outside of the classroom. First and foremost, we can’t become desensitized to the frequency of violence and we must remain vigilant about being part of the solution toward creating safe havens so desperately needed by today’s youth.

The Catholic Charities Teen Center at St. Peter’s does and has been doing exactly that for the past 10 years, serving as a safe haven for adolescents in one of Dorchester’s most troubled areas — the Bowdoin Street/Geneva Avenue area. Through critical outreach efforts and extensive programming, the Teen Center has been successful in helping to interrupt the rapidly expanding cycle of violence. Specifically, 92 percent of the Teen Center members pass the MCAS and TOEFL tests, 92 percent graduate high school, less than one percent have been arrested and none have been killed. This is all the more dramatic when considering that the local public high school has a 41 percent graduation rate and ranks 330 out of 339 in state-wide MCAS scores; and Dorchester has Boston’s highest juvenile arrest rate, and violent crime rate.

Realizing that providing a safe physical location isn’t enough, the Teen Center works to engage kids through a variety of innovative programming like academic support, dance, theatre, music production, and karate. In addition, the Center seeks to attract kids as young as middle-school with unique offerings such as the boxing program overseen by DEA agent Paul Doyle. One of the most important effects of the program comes from the interactions between teens and the police officers. The kids see officers in a different light and perspective when they’re working together, with some expressing interest in joining the force as a career, and the officers gain insight into the realities these young people are facing on a daily basis.

In addition to the important partnership between the Teen Center and the Boston Police Department, this program is a also an example of the need to form meaningful relationships with kids at a young age so as to stem violence and get kids vested in being on the right path. By reaching kids at a younger age, the hope is that a greater and lasting impact can be made.

As for Manuel, he started going to the Teen Center not long after he arrived to Boston. It wasn’t until two years later when he received his first report card as a freshman at Boston International High School in Dorchester highlighted with A’s and B’s that he “stepped back and found hope.” Manuel now is a student at Bridgewater State University and today he has a path planned — one of his choosing — filled with empathy, resiliency and perseverance.

Manuel is a young man who could have fallen into the cycles of violence to which so many are victim. But he is a shining example of how the investment of time, mentorship and education can allow young people to excel to their highest potential. We can’t be numb to realities or daunted by funding shortfalls. All parties — community and civic organizations, schools, city and state government, educators, parents, businesses and the list goes on — need to come together in partnership to address the challenges in the summer and beyond.

Deborah Kincade Rambo is president of Catholic Charities of Boston.
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