Difference Maker

Her guiding principle when working with at-risk teens: Never, ever give up

Through project Roca (Spanish for 'rock') Mary Baldwin reaches out to teenagers in Massachusetts to keep them off the streets and out of jail.

By , / Correspondent

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    Mary Baldwin, known to many as ‘Molly,’ was photographed near her office in Chelsea, Mass. She is the founder and executive director of Roca (Spanish for ‘rock’), which has won national acclaim for its work with at-risk youths. Roca aims to move teens from the streets and gangs into responsible, productive lives.
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The last thing Mary Baldwin would call herself is a hero. In fact, she doesn't like to talk about herself; she'd rather let others do the talking. Not about her – about their own transformed lives.

Yet so many of those people would tell you that they changed their lives directly because of Ms. Baldwin and her unwavering conviction that "as long as you're living, you have a chance."

Baldwin – or simply "Molly," as everyone knows her – became interested as a teenager in community work and especially in prisons. "I found that our penal system is ineffective, expensive – and dangerous," she says. "I thought, there's got to be a better way."

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So almost 23 years ago, when the state of Massachusetts gave her a $134,000 grant to start a program to prevent teen pregnancies, she dived in.

Today Baldwin, and "some fabulous teachers and coaches," have parlayed that first grant into an $8 million project called Roca (Spanish for "rock"). Last year, Roca served more than 700 youths through an educational and training intervention program, as well as another 150 young people through less intensive services.

Roca has become a valued part of the community: a training, counseling, and all-around life-transforming center for some of the most at-risk young people in the eastern Massachusetts cities of Chelsea and Revere, and also in East Boston, as well as in Springfield, in western Massachusetts.

They all are places where gang violence and poverty intersect in a seemingly endless cycle.

Roca may have gone "a little against the stream" to achieve its goal of moving young people out of violence and poverty, Baldwin concedes. But no one can argue with its success rate.

Through its "high-risk intervention model," Roca keeps young people in school; helps those who've dropped out gain life skills (including a GED, the equivalent of a high school diploma); aids youths in finding and keeping jobs; and provides a place to stay off the streets – and out of jail.

Roca also focuses on helping teen parents succeed by encouraging them to stay in school, as well as by providing prenatal and postnatal care (while counseling them to avoid more pregnancies).

Maybe most important, Baldwin has given many forgotten or neglected young people hope for the future.

She attributes her success principally to two things: the many people who have helped and supported her, and the youth workers she sends onto the streets every day to encourage gang members and dropouts to come in and accept help.

Roca youth workers visit teens' homes, take them to and from school, tell them their own stories of how they left gangs, or just provide a place to feel safe.

Sotun Krouch, who came to the United States from Cambodia as an infant, and as a teen wound up on the streets, says tenacious Roca workers brought him around.

"They keep coming after you," he says. Today, Mr. Krouch serves as Roca's evaluation and information technology coordinator.

Perhaps Roca's biggest contribution is that it provides a safe environment. The Chelsea facility includes a gym, where teams compete in basketball tournaments. Roca offers training in framing, cabinetmaking, finish carpentry, jewelrymaking, dance, nutrition, and cooking.

A music lab supports bands that form at Roca. Young people can even produce their own CDs there. A kitchen serves free dinners every night to 75 people in the community.

Rosa Bermudez, a 19-year-old mother, works in the Roca kitchen learning about food preparation and nutrition. Ms. Bermudez's kitchen work helps her to meet the criteria for the Youth Star Program, part of Americorps, a federal training and service program.

She attends college in Swampscott, Mass., and hopes to find work in the medical field upon graduation. Roca provides the child care she desperately needs for her 2-year-old son, Isaiah, while she works to complete her program, she says.

Roca has had a deep and positive impact on Chelsea, says City Manager Jay Ash. Baldwin is the most deeply committed person he's ever seen helping youths, who often have no one else who cares about them, he says.

"She's even challenged me to look inward at myself, and outward at what I want for a greater society," Mr. Ash says. "For the last 15 years, we've been partners in contributing to some remarkable achievements for Roca."

Not all stories at Roca end in success – and even the good endings often don't come about quickly, Baldwin says. Despite some failures, the tough work, and the challenges, her guiding principle remains the same: Never, ever give up on anyone.

Thom Ke, who showed up 17 years ago as a teenage gang member, still is amazed at Baldwin's willingness to go the extra mile. Now a father and owner of two family businesses – and a volunteer community organizer himself – Mr. Ke calls Baldwin "an absolute inspiration.

"She changes lives, one kid at a time. She's my hero," he says.

"She's the real deal."

• To read more stories about people making a difference, go here.

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