By Akilah Johnson | Globe staff June 17, 2014
Supporters of a teen center in Dorchester’s Bowdoin-Geneva neighborhood urged civic leaders Tuesday morning to help them raise $1 million. The money would be used to continue the center’s middle school program and help quell youth violence by giving young people opportunity and hope.
“Our research has shown us that if we get a kid in sixth grade and we keep them until 12th grade, we can get you into college,” Deborah Kincade Rambo, president of Catholic Charities, which runs the Teen Center at St. Peter’s, said before an audience of about 50 people gathered in the Lower Church of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross where Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley and Boston Police Commissioner William B. Evans spoke.
O’Malley told the group, which included advertising magnate and philanthropist Jack Connors and James Gallagher, executive vice president of John Hancock, that the Teen Center is part of the church’s response to gun violence in the community.
“Gun violence and crime are such a plague that has taken the lives of so many of our young people,” O’Malley said. “[It’s] so tragic to go to these wakes and funerals of young children, really, and to see the agony on the face of their parents and their siblings.”
The Teen Center, he said, provides the community with a sense of hope and is proof of what can be done to make a difference in people’s lives.
“They’ve saved lives,” he said. “Catholic Charities is doing yeoman’s work and needs your help.”
In front of each seat rested a map with the boundaries of Bowdoin-Geneva sketched in black ink. Crowded around the edges and inside the boundary lines were red and black dots, representing 68 shootings and fatalities in the past five years.
Yellow stars among the dots depicted the young people who attend the Teen Center. “Where you live shouldn’t determine whether you live,” was written on the side.
The center’s middle school program was born about eight years ago when community leaders were concerned about a spike in neighborhood violence, Kincade Rambo said. But she said that money tends to follow need, and when a crisis ends, so does the money to quell it.
The $1 million would be used to keep the program running through the end of the year, with about $250,000 going immediately to fund the summer program and move about 20 students from a waiting list. Each year, the Teen Center provides everything from homework help and standardized test preparation to basketball games and camping trips for about 500 young people. Most of the teenagers are Cape Verdean immigrants, and nearly a third are not literate in English.
Connors, who spearheaded a multimillion-dollar campaign to raise money for Catholic schools that also netted about $4.5 million to rehabilitate the Teen Center, set a 60-day deadline to raise the money for the middle school program.
“I fought all my life; why not fight one more fight,” said Connors, invoking Scottish poet Robert Burns. “As I look around the room, it’s a lot of people doing a lot of good for a lot of things, and we’re asking you to take on one more.”
The police commissioner said he, along with priests from the archdiocese, had been summoned to the Lower Church once before, at the beginning of the year when the city saw an uptick in violence. His message then was the same as it is now: “We’re all in this together.”
The leadership at the Teen Center and St. Peter Parish “are all our partners in making the neighborhood safe,” he said before giving a statistical snapshot of gun violence in Boston.
Last year, 251 people were shot and 33 of them died, according to Police Department statistics. In the first six months of this year, 71 people have been shot, with 21 of those victims dying, police statistics show. Eleven of those homicides occurred within the first two months of the year, according to statistics.
“There’s way too many guns out there,” Evans said, referring to the city’s gun buyback program, which allows people to relinquish illegal guns in exchange for store gift cards. The program, he said, has netted 661 guns this year.
“That’s a Band-Aid; it really is,” he said. “What needs to change is the mindset. If you don’t have cultural centers and outlets for these young kids, nothing is going to change.”
The Teen Center is one such place. But those in attendance did not have to take his word for it. Eighteen-year-old Irlando Goncalves took the microphone and told the crowd of growing up in the neighborhood on Hendry Street. He was skipping class, clowning around, mouthing off, and getting suspended, barely squeaking through middle school.
Then someone told him about the Teen Center. He was hesitant to attend at first, worried about how youths in the neighborhood would look at him. “It was hard for me to actually stay focused, because I was so afraid that people in my neighborhood were going to look at me differently for going to a place where it’s safe,” he said. “So I thought to myself, maybe this is a bad thing.”
But he kept at it, working as a counselor in training the summer before his freshman year at English High School and said his whole perspective changed. Now, he is a high school graduate headed to college in New York this fall with a full scholarship at Union College through the Posse Foundation.
“Now everywhere I go people are like, ‘Oh, that dude used to go to the Teen Center. He got the scholarship. He’s going to New York now. He’s moving out of Boston,’ ” Goncalves said. “I told them, ‘I’m not really moving. I’m just going to college . . . and I’m coming back to my community because this is where I belong. This is where I came from.’ ”