Sports

A hand up: a special bond helps at-risk city kids reach college

Pat Arcand smiled with Tomell Kelley and his grandmother Sophia Weah as Tomell moved into his dorm room at Springfield College.
Keith Bedford/Globe Staff
Pat Arcand smiled with Tomell Kelley and his grandmother Sophia Weah as Tomell moved into his dorm room at Springfield College.

Her first stop was in the heart of a Roxbury public housing development menaced by gang violence.

As Pat Arcand steered her Toyota Camry into the project, 18-year-old Austin Webster strode out of his apartment, past his blind sister and her infant twins, his paralyzed stepfather, and his ailing mother, who said, “Is that your white mom again?’’

Sort of.

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Webster folded his lanky frame into Arcand’s sedan. They zigzagged two miles across Roxbury to a brick row house where 19-year-old Tomell Kelley, a refugee of the Liberian civil war, emerged from a one-room apartment he shares with his grandmother.

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They were on the move again, two city teens with once-bleak futures and a 58-year-old public relations professional from Cambridge who popped into their lives five years ago and has nurtured them as if they were her own.

As students across Massachusetts prepare to begin their first college classes, Kelley and Webster have risen to join them, thanks in no small measure to Arcand and the Play Ball! Foundation, which has invested millions of dollars to transform athletics and improve academic outcomes in Boston’s middle schools.

Six years ago, Webster and Kelley were drifting at the Orchard Gardens K-8 Pilot School in Roxbury, then one of the worst-performing schools in the state. They were getting little from their daily school routine but free meals.

Then came Play Ball! and Arcand. Just about everything changed, and now Webster and Kelley are the first in their families to pursue higher education, thrilling few more than Webster’s mother, a Honduran immigrant.

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“My mom knows how much Pat has invested in us,’’ Webster said. “She is a big fan.’’

As Play Ball!’s program director and chief liaison with the Boston schools, Arcand has spent six years helping many disadvantaged middle schoolers find purpose through sports and advance to the city’s best public high schools or private institutions such as Boston College High School and Xaverian.

But her bond with Webster and Kelley is unique, a commitment beyond anything she has done or could once have imagined taking on. Certainly it is beyond anything the boys ever expected.

Arcand hugged Kelley after helping him move into his dorm room.
Keith Bedford/Globe Staff
Arcand hugged Kelley after helping him move into his dorm room.

Arcand saw Webster and Kelley grow from dropout candidates to student-athletes who attracted scholarship offers from Catholic Memorial High School. But she also saw the extraordinary challenges they continued to face, including the $10,000 scholarship offers from Catholic Memorial, which left them $5,000 short of the first-year tuition.

So began her humanitarian mission.

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“I knew $5,000 might as well as have been $50,000 to their families,’’ Arcand said.

Cancer had claimed Webster’s father when he was an infant, and Kelley has never seen his father. Webster’s mother is jobless after a bout with cancer, and Kelly has seen his mother only once since he left a refugee camp in Ghana at the age of 8.

From Africa, Kelley found his way to Roxbury with his grandmother, also a Liberian refugee, while his mother and two siblings, stymied by US immigration restrictions, settled in Australia.

In the years after, Kelley mostly raised himself while his grandmother worked nights housekeeping at St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center and cleaning hotel rooms. They shared a single room, his grandmother sleeping on their only bed, while he has slept on a couch.

“You get used to it,’’ Kelley said.

The boys hardly knew Arcand when she began providing for them. “At first, I thought she was supposed to be our guardian through Play Ball!’’ Webster said. “But over time it wasn’t adding up. I finally realized she was helping us because she developed feelings for us.’’

Arcand is married without children. But her commitment stems less from wanting to mother the youths than from trying to foster the goodness and potential she has seen in them.

“I just kind of fell for them,’’ she said. “Boys can be very tender and sensitive, you know. I never knew that.’’

A graduate of Chelmsford High School and Villanova University, Arcand has managed communications for technology companies and nonprofits for over 20 years, operating with subtle tenacity and a genial smile. She has applied similar qualities in helping to build Play Ball!’s programs in 22 Boston schools.

To close the tuition gaps for Kelley and Webster, Arcand recruited a deep-pocketed donor. But just as the boys were poised to enter Catholic Memorial, the benefactor backed out, leaving them to face the possibility of accepting a late assignment to a subpar public school.

Panicked, Arcand appealed to Mike Harney, a 36-year-old downtown investment banker and former lacrosse star at Concord-Carlisle Regional High School and Georgetown University who created Play Ball! Since 2009, his nonprofit has focused on plugging gaping holes in Boston middle school athletics.

For many years, the only interscholastic sports available in Boston’s middle schools were basketball and track. Harney’s foundation ended that inequity by funding interscholastic football, boys and girls soccer, baseball, softball, girls volleyball, ice hockey, and double Dutch jump roping leagues that have improved thousands of young lives from East Boston to Mattapan.

The hook: Students need good grades to play. That meant no more napping in class for Webster and Kelley, who became faces of a radical turnaround at Orchard Gardens, thanks in part to Play Ball!

But Harney was not inclined to help with their tuition. His foundation, whose signature fund-raiser is the annual Santa Speedo Run in the Back Bay, aims to build sports opportunities for middle schoolers, not to pay private school tuitions.

“Are we really on the hook for this?’’ Arcand recalled him asking. No, but Arcand appealed for mercy until Harney’s board of directors pledged nearly $50,000 to bridge the four-year tuition gaps for the teenagers.

“When we realized how important this was to Pat, it really became a priority for us because she is the face of Play Ball! in the Boston schools,’’ Harney said, “I call her the Mother Teresa of Boston middle school sports.’’

Still, the boys faced countless hurdles beyond the tuition quandary. Someone would need to shepherd them through the transition from Orchard Gardens to Catholic Memorial.

But also: Who would pay for their books? Their parochial school khakis and Oxford-style dress shirts? Their transportation? Their meals?

Who would field calls from their teachers, coaches, and guidance counselors? Who would find them summer jobs? Take them on college tours?

Arcand.

She said she was acting on a lesson from her own family.

“I had a cousin who went to a private school from a middle-class background as a scholarship student, but he didn’t make it because he felt so out of place,’’ she said. “That informed my decision to help Austin and Tomell because I knew it would be harder for them coming from the inner city.’’

Webster and Kelley needed to rise before 5 a.m. for their hourlong commute on the T to school. But Kelley often overslept, and when his guidance counselor called Arcand to report his absence, Arcand drove to Roxbury, banged on his door, and delivered him bleary-eyed to school.

Kelley offered no resistance, only gratitude.

“I will never forget Pat,’’ he said. “She has been there for basically everything we have needed her for.”

Arcand cheered as Kelley capped his high school football career by scoring a touchdown in helping Catholic Memorial defeat BC High last fall in the state tournament. She watched Webster shine in basketball and nearly break the school’s triple jump record. And she nurtured them in times of crisis.

In December, Webster and several friends were group texting when 17-year-old D’Andre King-Settles suddenly stopped communicating. Webster looked out the window of a fourth-floor apartment in his housing project and saw his friend sprawled on the pavement, shot to death.

In the days after, Webster withdrew.

“It wore him down,’’ Arcand said of the homicide.

With Arcand’s encouragement, Webster nonetheless persevered in school, where he impressed Dennis Golden, his theology teacher, as “a very bright, thoughtful, reflective, and respectful young man.’’

Kelley, meanwhile, battled college admissions stress, from choosing the right school to negotiating the best financial aid package.

“I needed someone to talk to, and I knew my grandmother wouldn’t understand the workings of college,’’ he said. “I leaned on Pat.’’

At Catholic Memorial’s graduation ceremony in May, Arcand hovered, camera in hand. The highlight was Kelley’s mother arriving from Australia, the first time they had seen each other in 10 years.

Kelley received a generous financial aid package from Springfield College and reported Aug. 12 for football practice. Golden said he expects him to thrive in a setting where he can sleep in his own bed, count on regular meals, and walk to classes and the library.

Webster’s road may be steeper. He was accepted by Salem State University, but he plans to stay home to help care for his family, especially his sister’s children. “I just can’t leave my mom’s plate that full,’’ he said.

Webster has enrolled at Bunker Hill Community College and says he is committed to his goal of earning a master’s degree in physical therapy. But some of his supporters fear he could be hindered by the rigors of managing both college and his life at home.

Others are more confident.

“Pat is so relentless and committed to those kids; she won’t let Austin get lost in the shadows,’’ Harney said. “She will be focused on making sure the next chapter of his life is the best.’’

Classes start Sept. 6.

Pat Arcand took on a deep role in the lives of Tomell Kelley (center) and Austin Webster.
Keith Bedford/Globe Staff
Pat Arcand took on a deep role in the lives of Tomell Kelley (center) and Austin Webster.

Bob Hohler can be reached at robert.hohler@globe.com.