WEARING a rumpled brown jacket and slapping low fives, Emmett Folgert moves easily through a cluster of African-American, Asian, and Hispanic teens and children. Most are pulling on him while he banters one-to-one, jostling him, and stutter-stepping en masse toward a room where free food is waiting.
For 22 years Mr. Folgert has been on a singular mission: to save teens and children from the war zone of street life. ''And all the time without a clear revenue stream,'' he quips. It is a constant struggle to acquire funds to keep going, he says.
As program director of the nonprofit Dorchester Youth Collaborative (DYC) -- up a flight of creaking stairs to a friendly but fleabag cluster of offices -- he has changed the lives of dozens of young people in this Boston neighborhood over the years.
''If we have trouble on the street,'' says Dorchester Police Capt. Robert Dunford, ''I can call him and say, 'Listen, get up there and talk to these kids.' And he's there. They know him, and listen to him.''
Folgert's two decades on the streets have been anchored in two facts: the worth he finds in each youngster and their trust in him.
His reputation in the community is near legendary. When President Clinton signed the anticrime legislation last year, Folgert stood nearby on the White House lawn.
''We have only a fraction of the capacity to supervise kids that we had 30 years ago,'' Folgert says, ''and thousands of kids are roaming all over the place.'' Three times he has seen youngsters killed in gang warfare in Dorchester. One boy died in his arms. Four times he has been a foster parent. Countless times he has driven the streets at night pulling kids back from temptations, and negotiating tense settlements.
''This is supposedly a lost generation,'' he says of the media perception of inner-city youths. ''Instead, maybe we are trying to lose them. I don't know; they seem fine to me. I like these kids.''
With some $600,000 in funds from private, city, and federal sources, Folgert and the DYC staff of 17 offer several programs: an alternative middle school for the chronically truant, an after-school violence-prevention drop-in center, school-based multicultural activities, police partnership programs, and a media-arts program. After working at the Dorchester YMCA for several years, he started DYC in 1978.
''Emmett accepts the kids the way they are,'' says LaVall Brown, the executive director of DYC, ''yet he is changing them and they don't know it.''
Captain Dunford credits the DYC and other community organizations in Dorchester with reducing crime by 10 percent in 1994, and a 20 percent drop in drive-by shootings and aggravated assaults. ''If DYC and other community groups weren't here,'' he says, ''it would be a lot worse. [Folgert] walks a fine line because the kids tell him everything, and I've never known him to violate that trust.''
Other youth leaders agree. ''Emmett is the man,'' says Mahesh Balan, Gang Prevention Coordinator for Suffolk County. ''He has enormous respect in the community because they know he has turned kids' lives around.''
In an ethnically mixed low-income neighborhood where many families barely function, highly organized do-good efforts give way to a kind of Folgert informality. He is the available father figure, a here-and-there counselor and hugger to the teens and pre-teens that come and go in the battered rooms of the DYC. So are the rest of the DYC staff, several of whom were rescued from street life by Folgert in their teens.
''For every kid the incubation period is different,'' says Gerry Nuzzolo, the Neighborhood Service Coordinator for DYC. When they get out of line, ''we'll call them on it, but they know we care.'' After trust is established, DYC will steer the child or teen toward projects, jobs, or programs.
For 16-year-old Tyrone Burton, Folgert and DYC changed his life. ''If it wasn't for Emmett, I'd still be stealing cars and selling drugs,'' he says. Folgert saw Tyrone hustling money at a self-service gas station and started talking to him three years ago. Burton now attends school regularly and does public-service commercials for a local TV station as a result of training at the DYC media-arts program.
Parents are not usually involved in the programs. ''A lot of low-income families are overwhelmed financially even when they work all the time,'' Folgert says. ''Most of the single mothers want to do the right things, but they get tired, and they don't do the right things long enough.''
The focus is on winning the trust of the kids, many of whom are virtually unsupervised. ''We follow the model of a third-world country dealing with street kids,'' Folgert says during a day spent with him. ''Give 'em food, hug 'em, maybe shoes, too.''
DYC feeds some 15 to 30 kids a day. ''Most kids get food at home,'' he says, ''but you never know..... It's also smart to feed kids. All you need is two hungry kids who don't tell you they are hungry to completely disrupt a program.''