Showing kids a world beyond the streets

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

JORDAN KNIGHT, a wiry high school freshman, chuckles and twists his baseball cap as he fishes around for words to describe why he keeps coming to the Dorchester Youth Collaborative (DYC). ``They set up jobs for people, and talk about how you're doing in school,'' he says. And is it helping him and his friends? ``I guess so,'' Jordan says with the noncommittal casualness of youth. From the other end of the long, open room in the agency's upstairs headquarters on traffic-jammed Dorchester Avenue comes the blare of disco music. Orlando (Ozzie) Gomez, another DYC regular, is demonstrating his break-dancing skills. A number of the kids take part in a break-dancing troupe, ``The Electric Generation,'' that performs for schools and other civic groups. They've even done a bar mitzvah in a suburb miles away from this Boston neighborhood of aging storefronts and endless triple-decker housing. ``That was an enlightening experience all around,'' says Collaborative executive director Dan Jaffe wryly, recalling the mix of youngsters from widely differing cultural and economic backgrounds. And it's the kind of thing, like the job counseling, that might open teen-agers' eyes to a world beyond that of the sometimes violent local streets.

The agency director points out that the 80 youngsters (ages 11-17) currently served by the program are not ``hard core'' youth who have already become involved with crime and drugs. Generally, the DYC participants haven't dropped out of school or shown up in court, but the risk of these things happening is high. In some, but not all cases, the youngster's home life is badly fractured. ``We try to develop a support structure to help these kids develop,'' Mr. Jaffe sums up.

The Collaborative calls its program ``Ties.'' The name springs from the central effort to ``link'' kids who may be headed toward crime to people who can guide them into more constructive paths, Mr. Jaffe explains. Ties was set up with help from the Eisenhower Foundation for the Prevention of Violence, a Washington-based organization that has fostered 10 similar programs in urban neighborhoods around the United States, including the South Bronx, West Philadelphia, Liberty City in Miami, and one in Puerto Rico.

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Rooting a project like Ties takes a great deal of spadework in the community, says Mr. Jaffe, recounting how the task was tackled two years ago. First, there was the job of recruiting an advisory council from all segments of an ethnically diverse community -- and one that has been prone to racial violence as blacks have moved into traditionally white areas. Second, 300 Dorchester residents were surveyed to discover their concerns about crime. Third, community leaders -- merchants, clergy, judges, and block club chairmen -- were interviewed in depth, informed about the project's goals, and sometimes persuaded to join the advisory council.

That step-by-step process got the word out and helped rally the neighborhood behind the program, Mr. Jaffe says. It also led to a more positive relationship between law enforcement and the DYC, so that now the police frequently seek the agency's help when a youth gets in trouble.

Much of the energy of Ties centers on giving kids things to do that hold their interest, like the break-dancing, and that lay a basis for future employment. The work crew program, for example. Sometimes it involves cleaning up vacant lots for a minimum wage; sometimes homeowners hire the kids. One crew does minor repair work inside houses, such as stripping off wallpaper.

It doesn't pay much, but it keeps them occupied, says Mr. Jaffe. And most important, he adds, ``it's a tremendous tool for us to see if they're ready for other jobs.'' When youngsters exhibit the responsibility to show up when they're needed and stick to a task, the next step is to guide them toward work that will challenge them more and may lead toward a career.

Roddy Roach, a soft-spoken high school junior and the agency's youngest counselor, says the structure seems to work. ``They get people, kids, off the streets and into doing something creative,'' he remarks.

Roddy is a member of a neighborhood youth council's leadership program and sought out the job at DYC when a friend told him about it. ``A lot of the problems you can see, like peer pressure,'' he says, adding that he's been through the same things himself.

The Ties program could use more counselors, but it's run ``on a shoestring,'' says Mr. Jaffe -- $54,000 a year. That means that when a crisis arises, or a youngster turns up in court or is kicked out of his home, counseling help is often not immediately available.

The funding end of things is something the Eisenhower Foundation continues to work on. Lynn Curtis, the foundation's president, recently met with business leaders in Boston to cultivate support for the Dorchester Youth Collaborative and other prospective programs here. He was encouraged by the interest shown. One thing that attracts backing for this and other Eisenhower projects, he says, is the emphasis on private funding and on self-help generated within a neighborhood itself.

How effective have the DYC/Eisenhower Foundation efforts been in Dorchester? Mr. Jaffe recognizes that it's not easy to measure just how much impact a program like Ties has on a community, especially after only two years. But he says he thinks it has perceptibly broken down some of the ``turf'' consciousness that has traditionally been the source of much violence between ethnic groups in the neighborhood.

To get a more ``scientific'' reading of the state of the neighborhood, DYC plans a follow-up survey of residents in the near future. As for the kids, perhaps Zulema Rayes spoke for most of them when asked what she liked best about the program. Mustering considerable enthusiasm for a self-possessed high school sophomore, she volunteered, ``Everything, I guess.''

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