With support and opportunity, Dorchester youth 'cannot fail'

By Roy Lincoln Karp
Reporter Columnist

It’s half past nine in the morning and Kenny Johnson’s crew is working hard at the Yawkey Center, the non-profit multi-service facility on Columbia Road run by Catholic Charities. One teen is mowing grass out back, while three others are removing white boards from classroom walls that will be replaced with smart boards that will enhance the teaching of English and job readiness skills.

The crew members are part of Safe City Academy, a skills development program for disconnected youth who are not engaged in academic or vocational education. This is one of two initiatives run by the Dorchester Youth Collaborative (DYC), the Fields Corner non-profit founded in 1981 by Emmett Folgert. Safe City Academy provides support, mentoring, and transitional employment for “young people from families where no one has acquired a skilled trade or attended post-secondary education.”

Though relatively small, DYC has extended its reach and impact by developing robust partnerships with other organizations that share its goals. These include pipeline programs it has developed with several trade unions and the North Bennet Street School, which has enabled DYC graduates to enter trades such as pipefitting, locksmithing, and carpentry.

Another good example is the partnership between DYC and Catholic Charities, which utilizes a Safe City Academy crew to do general maintenance work at its properties. Debby Rambo, executive director at Catholic Charities, describes the collaboration as a “twofer” that provides high quality work at a reasonable price, while helping young people with life and job readiness skills. Of course, the two organizations are no strangers. As Rambo points out, “we’ve been working closely with DYC on youth issues for about 20 years.”

Partnerships are also critical to the success of Focus and Finish, which provides year-round, intensive support for school aged youth, including tutoring, counseling, and access to high quality enrichment programs connected to each student’s interests. During the summer, teens 15 and older work at full-time summer jobs. Those under 15 are enrolled in a wide variety of activities, including bike building and repair at Bikes not Bombs, ballet at Boston Arts Academy, music at Tanglewood, acting and directing at a film camp, soccer camp, and even elite pole vaulting.

“We overschedule our kids like helicopter parents,” Folgert says, “so they don’t have time to be recruited by a gang.” About half the youth in Focus and Finish live in areas identified by the city as “hot spots” for violence, which means “the stakes are high.” The other half are walk-ins, usually friends of others already in the program.

In July, DYC was awarded a $100,000 grant from the Cummings Foundation, one of 100 local non-profits to receive the foundation’s highly competitive “100K for 100” program. According to Christina Berthelsen, the foundation’s grants manager, she received “unanimous positive feedback” about DYC from multiple volunteer committees that review grant applications. “DYC is out there doing the tough work and meeting the youth where they are at.”

Folgert plans to spread the award over four years and is excited about the possibilities the new funding source will open up. “Our community can have such a negative brand and that’s wrong,” he says. “Given the right support and opportunity, young people in Dorchester cannot fail and don’t.” He later apologizes for sometimes talking in sound bites, but this is no sound bite. It’s the summation of a lifetime of work with hundreds of young people, work that has been done with great care and curiosity about what makes each one of them tick.