Youth center gets neighbors’ support

Teenagers from the South Street housing development’s Youth Center are now making house calls.

In response to neighbors interested in learning more about the center at 15 St. Rose St., two center youths, John Mejia and Jamilex Paulino, appeared as the featured speakers at a house party hosted by St. Rose Street resident Christy Pardew Nov. 30.

“It was about trying to get funding and volunteers for the center,” Mejia, 14, told the Gazette.

By all accounts the event—the first in a series, with two more in the works—was a huge success on multiple fronts. It reportedly attracted about 25 people—many of whom are interested in volunteering. And it raised about $1,100 to contribute to a budget that inspired Center Director Maura Ramsey to joke to the Gazette that “a shoestring would be a really nice.”

Longtime community activist and area resident Kathy Brown, who heads the Boston Tenant Coalition, said, “It was a great way to communicate and express that this is our community and these are our kids.”

The relationship between the low-income public housing development and the surrounding community is a prime example of what many describe as “the two JPs”—one largely white and affluent and one low-income and mostly people of color—Brown said.

Brown said there have been previous efforts to bridge the gap between the housing development and the surrounding community, but this seems like the most successful one so far.

That may, at least in part, because local residents are far from the first group the Youth Center has worked to reach out to and network with for support running its programming.

The Boston Housing Authority, which runs the South Street development at 125 South St., funded the center until 2001. Since that funding dried up, Ramsey Abigail Ortiz, who runs community programs at Southern Jamaica Plan Health Center (SJPHC), told the Gazette, most of the funding and support for the program has come from SJPHC, the local health advocacy group Tree of Life/Arbol de Vida and Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Despite a thin funding, programming at the youth center expanded in recent years. Initially it consisted of a single program for first- to eighth-graders, Ramsey said. It now includes a program for elementary school youths and a teen drop-in program. The elementary school program staffed, in part, by four seventh- and eighth-grade mentors, who call themselves the “Colossal Peace Crew.” The center serves about 50 youths a day, Ramsey said.

Much of what makes the center hop, Ramsey said, is based on community networking and collaborations.

For youths like Mejia, that means getting to participate in events like a trip to Occupy Boston organized by JP Unidos, a coalition of youth organizers and youth advocacy workers in JP.

Mejia said he said he appreciated the opportunity to talk to protest participants about how “the 99 percent includes teens, too.”

Thanks to the community center’s relationship with SJPHC, many young adolescents who went through the centers elementary school program are able to find other opportunities, too. “Our goal is to get people out of the development and into community-based programs in the neighborhood. [Ramsey] is constantly funneling older youths to me,” Ortiz said.

This is the first generation of South Street residents in recent memory that those types of opportunities have been available for, Ramsey said. And, for the moment, one thing that distinguishes South Street program is that the teenagers she is sending to speak at house parties and visit Occupy Boston are relatively young.

“You can really tell the difference between the older teens and the kids who are 13 and 14 who have been working with us since they were 8,” she said.

Programming for high-schoolers began in earnest fairly recently, she said. The catalyst for the teen drop-in center was the 2008 slaying of 20-year-old South Street development resident Keldrin Peña in Roxbury.

“People were really scared. South Street does not have turf wars,” Ramsey said.

Update: After the Gazette print deadline, Ramsey announced in an email that the youth center is inviting area residents and others to donate holiday presents for the youths to be distributed at the center’s Dec 21 holiday party.  Donors can sign up to fullfill specific youth present requests here.

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