Auto body man works to mold youth

For 23 years, Larry Dossantos quietly harbored a dream.

It was never quite the right time for the entrepreneur who ran an auto body and repair center in Mattapan. Life got in the way - he was busy at his shop, he married and had three children - but he never forgot the plan he had conceived of when he first opened his business.

Now, at 41 years old, Dossantos is through with waiting.

"I said to myself, watching these kids getting shot on the street, 'you gotta do something,'" he recalled, "Why not do it now?"

In July, Dossantos heard about a 15,000 square-foot building for sale on Norfolk Street in Dorchester.

He knew he had to jump on the opportunity.

Not only would the space be big enough to relocate his business, 912 Auto Center, but it would be the perfect site to pursue his dream - building a classroom to teach teens in the community how to work on cars. "I just want to help the kids," Dossantos said. "I want to have another future for them, a trade."

His plan is to offer after-school classes in auto body and repair to teens, imparting a valuable skill that could be lucrative to them in the future.

"There's a big need in our neighborhood," he said about youth services.

The area's demographics have changed in recent decades, bringing more and more youth to the neighborhood. Local leaders are struggling to bring youth services up to speed. "There's a real scarcity of services to deal with at-risk kids," said District B-3's Captain James Claiborne at a recent meeting of the Morton Street Board of Trade. "A lot of times out here, I feel like it's just us. And you don't want us to be your only answer."

Dossantos bases his idea on what the Opportunities Industrialization Center did for job training in Boston in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. From a location in Dudley Square, the Philadelphia-based organization trained thousands in office skills, office equipment repair and other trades.

"It's not every kid that will make it to college," Dossantos said. His program, he explained, would give kids a real trade that they could use to get a job.

At 109 Norfolk Street, a white door marks the new location. Inside, Dossantos's body shop is filled with vehicles in various stages of disassembly. Another door to the left leads to a large empty room.

"We are in phase one," Dossantos said, motioning to the unfinished walls and the man balancing on a ladder plastering the ceiling. The walls muffled the general din of the body shop and the blaring radio next door to a dull murmur.

For now it is only an open space, but if all goes as planned, it soon will be filled with lines of chairs and desks. Dossantos said he expects the program will be up and running in 2008, but that he is not sure how long it will take to get the required licensing.

The classes would be offered to teenagers 14 years-old and up. There will be no cost to the students. Classes would tentatively run three days a week, during after-school hours through the school year, and Monday through Friday in the summer. Dossantos said he would aim to teach small groups of 10 to 13 students. Once a student turns 18, Dossantos said he could help place the student in an auto body and repair job.

During the lessons, students would learn how to replace car parts, how to paint, how to do bodywork, and how to deal with insurance companies and write appraisals.

The classes would be comprised of two sections - the first would be in the classroom, and the second in the body shop, with students getting hands-on experience working on the cars.

Danny Hardaway, president of Morton Street Chamber of Commerce, said he thought the program would be very beneficial to the community.

"The youth want to learn something else," he said. "You'd be surprised how the youth are looking for things to do."

"They can develop themselves and become respectable human beings," Hardaway said.

Hardaway said the Morton Street Chamber of Commerce would be supporting Dossantos in his endeavor.

To let teens know about the program, Dossantos will be promoting it online and letting local schools know about the opportunities available.

Dossantos said all the details haven't been finalized yet, but his intentions for the teenagers are clear. "I want to give them something they can hold on to and go forward with," he said.

When he tells teens about his plans, the reaction is always the same.

"They ask me 'Is it really going to happen?' They are really looking forward to it," he said.

For exactly that reason, Dossantos has purposely not chosen a name for the new program.

"First class that comes in, I'll let them name it," he said.

Pete Stidman contributed to this story.