Sunday, January 8, 2012

One kid at a time

1998 Sunday Boston Globe Magazine profile of the youth development & employment program I directed for the City of Boston.

One kid at a time

Turning troubled young lives around isn't easy. But a few dedicated workers in South Boston and Roxbury are using a new approach on some of the city's toughest cases.

By Charles Stein

Leo Rull sits across the table from two younger men at a little bagel shop near City Hall. Rull knows the young men -like him, they live in South Boston -and he knows they need help, which he may be able to provide. But he doesn't say much at first. He just lets the pair talk. The two friends, Kevin O'Neil and Manuel Molina, are both 21 years old but, otherwise, not much alike. O'Neil is tall, easy-going, chatty. Molina is short and intense. Most of the time, he sits with his arms folded and a scowl on his face.

The differences fade as they begin to explain how they arrived at this point in life. Both live in the same South Boston housing project. Both grew up in households where drugs and alcohol were routinely abused. Molina, who left school in the ninth grade, sold drugs and has a criminal record. Some of their friends have succumbed to the twin plagues that afflict the young of South Boston, heroin and suicide. ``One of my buddies put a gun to his head last year,'' O'Neil says put a gun to his head last year,'' O'Neil says softly. ``I wanted to be with him.''
Rull doesn't register any shock; he could be listening to a story about a trip to the beach or a day at the office. He speaks only occasionally, waiting for breaks in the conversation to make his pitch. He tells Molina that he can arrange to have him take a GED test, the high school equivalency exam. He tells both that they are eligible for a two-week job-training course that could lead to a decent job. The word ``job'' gets their attention.

O'Neil's work history is spotty. Molina recently completed a six-month stint at a Dunkin' Donuts, and just yesterday he started a new job at Strawberries, a record store. But he is already planning to quit. ``I told my girlfriend I won't stay,'' he says indignantly. ``The job gets me aggravated. I can't stay at a job that only pays $5.75 an hour.''

Rull tells them they should come to an upcoming orientation session. O'Neil assures him they will be there and that they appreciate the opportunity. ``We are not 16 anymore,'' he tells Rull. ``If we don't get out, we will never get out.''

Ever since the days of Charles Dickens and Oliver Twist, society has agonized over the plight of poor urban kids. How do you steer them away from poverty, drugs, and crime and toward a better life? Is the answer social services? School? A job? For the past year, Boston has been trying all three. With the help of a $2.2 million grant from the federal government, the city has launched Youth Opportunities Area, a clunky name for an ambitious plan to rescue kids from the cycle of poverty and crime. The program is aimed at young people aged 16 to 24 who are out of school and without a job. Some have criminal records. Few come from two-parent families. Virtually all are poor. They are kids who have not benefited from the strong economy or any of the other positive changes that have transformed Boston in the past few years.

What distinguishes this program from the umpteen well-meaning programs that have come before it? One thing is its intensity. The government refers to the effort as a ``saturation'' strategy, because a significant amount of money is being poured into one small area -in this case, just the poorest parts of South Boston and Roxbury. ``This is going to be our laboratory,'' says Neil Sullivan, president of the Boston Private Industry Council, which handles the job-training branch of the effort. Like a laboratory, the neighborhoods are small enough so that those conducting the experiment can really focus on their subjects, an estimated 600 young people.

The experiment will run for three years, longer than the typical government grant. Unlike some programs, which work with the best-motivated people, this one will concentrate mainly on the toughest cases. ``These are kids no one wanted to touch,'' says Susan Lange, Sullivan's deputy. Many of the young people have been recommended by police officers and probation officers, who are hoping that some combination of school and employment will prove an attractive alternative to a life of crime. The failure rate here is likely to be higher than in past anti-poverty programs, but, by the same token, the successes should be more meaningful.

The pairing of the two neighborhoods, Roxbury and South Boston, with their history of racial animosity, might be expected to produce fireworks. So far, that hasn't happened. ``It hasn't been a lovefest, but we haven't had any problems,'' says Jed Hresko, project director for the program. ``These kids have the same issues -problems in school, problems at home, substance abuse. I think they are surprised when they see how similar they are.''

The program also represents an interesting pairing of approaches, a blend of the helping hand and tough love. The theory is that it will take both to make an impact. Hresko's team, case managers like Leo Rull, are the good cops. They serve as a sounding board and a shoulder to cry on. They hook up young people with a range of services, from day care to counseling to drug rehabilitation. Some days, they hand out subway tokens to kids who don't have enough money to get home. Sullivan's troops, the career counselors, are the bad cops. They represent the world of work, and their message is simple: Shape up or you won't get a job. They tell kids to get rid of their earrings and their bad attitudes. They don't tolerate lateness or excuses. There is a certain amount of tension between the two approaches, yet the goal is the same. ``We want you to go on to live a successful life,'' Hresko told a group of young people at a recent orientation session.

Many of the front-line workers in this effort come from the same housing projects and the same backgrounds as the kids they are trying to help. When they were younger, they, too, used drugs and got into trouble with law. They had parents and siblings who went to jail and dropped out of high school. One had a brother who committed suicide. The tight link between the rescuers and the rescued is not an accident. ``We weren't going to hire people who fell off the Good Ship Lollipop to teach these kids,'' says Lange. ``The kids wouldn't buy it.''

The case managers and job specialists earn about $30,000 a year, but many, clearly, are interested in other rewards. James Greer, who prepares kids for jobs, describes his work as a ``calling.'' Leo Rull says he is a ``man on a mission,'' and the mission is to save kids that the world has given up on.

But in this field, even the best-funded, best-designed program is not guaranteed to work. The young people the program serves have lives that resemble the children's game Chutes and Ladders. Like life, the game is a progression. You start at space number one and try to get to space number 100. When things go well, you steadily move up. Sometimes if you are lucky, you can climb a ladder that carries you higher still. But then there are the chutes, slides that bring you back down, often a long way down. The chutes are sprinkled throughout the board like booby traps. Some are located near the very top, which means you can fall back even when victory is within sight.

``We had a young woman from Roxbury, one of the real stars of our program, who was working at a law firm,'' says Lange. ``She was doing really well. She had been there for four months, taking on increased responsibility. The firm was talking about sending her for paralegal training. Then, one day, paralegal training. Then, one day, her supervisor went home early and left her in charge. And she just went home. The firm found out and fired her. These things happen.''

Even by his own frenetic standards, Leo Rull has had a busy day. In the morning, he went to the funeral of the mother of one of the young people he works with. Then he took a young man to court in South Boston to help him clean up an old arrest warrant. Then he went to a second funeral, for another mother, before heading to a meeting of youth workers. Back in his office, he is catching up on phone messages left by other kids in distress. One is from a youth who needs a place to go after he leaves a drug rehabilitation facility; another is from a young man who needs a subway token to get to Brighton.

In an earlier era, Rull, who is 33, could have been one of the Jets in West Side Story, a white kid from the wrong side of the tracks. He has a resume to match that of any of the kids he helps, tragedy for tragedy. His father spent time in prison. He and most of the members of his family dropped out of school. He dabbled in crime and, at various times, was addicted to angel dust and cocaine. At 24, he got sober and started to turn his life around. He began to work with kids, first as a volunteer, later as a professional. Ask him why, and you get a straightforward answer. ``I knew I could make a difference,'' he says. ``I know where these kids are coming from. I know, because I was the same lonely kid who was poor and had no father and felt that the whole world was against me. These kids are my people.''

On his desk, Rull has pictures of young people whom he and his colleagues placed in summer jobs this past year. He shows them off like a proud father, pointing out kids who are now working or going to school. Not all the graduates are doing well. There is a girl who is in a drug rehabilitation program, a young man who is in prison, and a few others who apparently have dropped out altogether. To Rull, these are not failures. They are people who have not yet succeeded. He is always there to pick them up when they fall down one of the chutes. ``People will make it in their own time,'' he says. ``I'm just trying to keep the door open.''

Two weeks later, back in his office, he is expecting Kevin O'Neil and Manuel Molina to come walking through the door for the orientation session they agreed to attend. ``If I know these guys, they are going to show up,'' he says. But as time passes, it becomes clear that the two aren't going to make it. Perplexed, Rull calls them. Molina tells him that he has to baby-sit for his stepson; O'Neil says that one of his uncles is in the hospital. Rull offers to drive over and pick them up -they are only a few miles away -but they don't accept his invitation. ``I called them just yesterday, and they seemed so enthusiastic,'' says Rull, shaking his head. ``I'm shocked.'' Still, he says, he will call them again to get them enrolled in the next job-training class.

Sometimes things work out better -even when the odds seem long. Consider the case of Amanda Kozlowski. A tall, rail-thin girl of 18 with reddish hair and silver rings on each finger, she sits at a pizza parlor in Andrew Square and describes her life. Her father is a heroin addict dying of AIDS her brother is addicted to pills, and Rull has been working to get him clean. Kozlowski and her 2-year-old child live in an apartment at the Mary Ellen McCormack housing project with her mother, grandmother, and several younger siblings. ``My short goal is to move the hell out of my home,'' she says, doing nothing to conceal her anger at her situation. Her child's father lives nearby, but he's no help. ``He kicked me down a flight of stairs,'' she says. For proof, Kozlowski pulls out a copy of the restraining order she took out against him.

This past summer, Rull and a co-worker, Nichelle Sadler, got Kozlowski a job working for the city, and she performed very well. Sadler has enrolled her in a night school program; Kozlowski left school in the seventh grade. Each night Kozlowski walks with her child from South Boston to school in the South End, a long trip that suggests to her counselors that she may have the grit to complete the journey to a better life. And just today, Sadler has lined up a part-time job for Kozlowski that will pay $8 an hour. Excited, Kozlowski cajoles one of the other case managers into driving her to City Hall so she can do the necessary paperwork to start the job. Sadler, a tall, soft-spoken woman, says it is too early to declare victory. She will not be surprised if Kozlowski runs into some problems. The young woman has a lot to overcome. Still, there is reason to be pleased. ``We are leaving this week on a good note,'' says Sadler. ``It doesn't always work out that way.''

Why do some kids make it while others do not? Is it because they have more support at home? Is it the influence of some teacher or mentor who pushes them in the right direction? Or is it something inside that can't easily be spotted or even given a name? Eve Kaplan isn't sure. But she is sure of one thing. When Luis Zenquis, then 16, first walked into her office, it was not at all clear that he was going to be one of the winners. ``He hardly said two words,'' says Kaplan, a former job-training specialist for the Private Industry Council who now does similar work in New York. ``He was sweet but very quiet. When he left, I said to myself, `This kid needs some kind of self-esteem booster.'''

Two years later, he is not the same Luis Zenquis. At school, he walks through the halls with a confidence that borders on a swagger. Zenquis attends Edco, a small alternative high school in Kenmore Square. He dropped out of school originally in the eighth grade. A tall, good-looking kid with a winning smile, Zenquis moves among his friends comfortably. In civics class, he engages in a lively discussion about President Clinton's legal troubles. He is the only student in the class who can correctly identify outgoing House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Later, in English, he cheerfully passes in his homework, one of only two students in the six-member class who have completed the assignment.

At his job, at a small publishing company in East Boston, his boss raves about his work. ``Luis is a great human being,'' says Robert Weiss, who puts out three travel journals. ``He has done an amazing job for us.'' Zenquis came to the company two years ago to help out for a few days. The company liked him, and he has stayed. A quick study, Zenquis has mastered bookkeeping and computing and now spends much of his time selling advertising space. He is a born schmoozer. He has little trouble chatting up strangers on the phone and getting them to buy ads. Zenquis is well paid and well thought of at work. He is particularly pleased that the company has given him his own key, so he can stay after hours and lock up. ``They show me trust and respect,'' he says. ``I like that.''

Zenquis has overcome many obstacles. His mother, with whom he shares an apartment in Dorchester, has a variety of health problems, and Zenquis frequently has to take her to the doctor. Sometimes he stays up late with her when she has trouble sleeping. His mother is on welfare, as is one of his older sisters. No one in his family graduated from high school. Zenquis's father left when he was young and later started a second family in the Bronx. Zenquis has grown very close to that family, even though his father is no longer in the picture there, either. In October 1997, one of his half-brothers, a young man he was very attached to, slammed his car into a wall and died. ``He took one deep breath, closed his eyes, and that was it,'' says Zenquis, who still carries his brother's picture in his wallet.

The accident threw Zenquis off course, especially in school. He missed a big chunk of one semester and was forced to repeat classes. He has since regained his footing, say his teachers. ``Luis has had lots of trials and tribulations,'' says Bill Gosmon, his English teacher. ``I'm proud of him. He will make it through.''

Why is Luis Zenquis likely to make it while others around him will not? His natural talents may explain part of it. He is bright, likable, and energetic. The support he has received at work has been a plus, as well. But there is more to it than that, says Raymond Rodriguez, a job counselor who has watched Zenquis develop. ``Luis doesn't want to let his family down,'' says Rodriguez. ``He wants to make his mom proud of him. And, most of all, he doesn't want to fail.'' Rodriguez may be close to the mark. When Zenquis was asked to write an essay for English class this fall, he turned in a paper called ``The Living Dead,'' his description of people he knows who have given up the struggle and have succumbed to drugs, drinking, or life on the streets.

``I wake up early in the morning with a slight headache, sweating, in tears, these streets have been trying to kill me for years,'' he wrote. ``A living nightmare ... each obstacle I over come brings on another one. ... condemned to these poverty stricken streets filled with corruption, drugs, violence and ignorance. Do I really want to die? See myself defeated and ashamed of what I have become, just another statistic, one of the living dead? These are the people I know well because I see them every day. These are the people that choose to die.''

When he is tempted to slough off or slide down a chute, Zenquis conjures up an image of the living dead and uses it for motivation. As he explains it, ``I wrote about what makes me get up in the morning, why I go to school, why I go to work. I know what can happen if I lay back in my warm bed. I remind myself of the bad times. The financial problems. I don't want that to happen anymore.''

James Greer is standing in front of a class of 16and 17-year-old high school students in Roxbury, talking about how to get a job. Kids of that age have a tendency to get bored and misbehave in school. No one is misbehaving today. The students are sitting quietly at their desks, paying attention. Credit for that goes to Greer. He is an imposing figure -a big, burly man who looks more like a middle linebacker than the high school basketball star he once was.

Like a coach, he is trying to get his charges ready to compete, in this case, in the unforgiving world of work. That means breaking a lot of bad habits -such as putting your hand in front of your mouth when you talk, or going to an interview in baggy jeans, or ending each sentence with ``You know what I mean?'' Says Greer: ``They don't know what you mean.'' He is particularly tough on tardiness, a chronic problem among the young. In one job-training class, he announces: ``If you are late, I won't let you in the room, because if you are late at a job, you will be fired.'' When people protest, Greer gives his standard reply: ``This is business, not personal.''

Most of the students get the message. But one young man apparently doesn't. When Greer asks him a question, he looks as if he can't be bothered to respond. ``Why are you here?'' Greer asks him pointedly. ``You are taking my time and energy away from someone else.'' A little while later, the same kid puts his head down on his desk. ``Get out,'' Greer tells but to no avail. He is gone. After class, Greer says: ``Negative energy removes energy; it's like a cancer. You could feel the energy level in the room pick up after he left.''

James Greer grew up in the South End. He had a tough adolescence. ``I witnessed murder, death, and destruction,'' he says. At 15, his best friend died in his arms after being shot. Greer got into his current line of work almost by accident. He had just coached a winning basketball game, bringing his team back from a large deficit, when someone from the stands approached him. The man said he had a job for Greer, working with young people. ``You have a gift,'' he said. ``I could see it in those kids' eyes.'' Greer, who is 35, has worked with kids in one way or another ever since. He is as compassionate and committed to the cause as any of the ``good cops.'' He is hard on the kids because their employers will be no less demanding. ``My style is my style,'' he says.

Greer's own employer, the Private Industry Council, has a long history of training the city's young people for work. The nonprofit group has placed high school students in jobs at the kind of downtown establishments -hospitals, banks, law firms -that typically would be out of reach for poor kids. The group's focus is on building careers, not just finding jobs. Students are encouraged to finish high school and go on to college, if possible. The message is the same for the young people targeted by the new program. So are the training methods.

But there are differences, too. Simply put, the young people from Roxbury and South Boston have more problems than the typical students the Private Industry Council trains. Quite a few are euphemistically described as ``courtinvolved,'' which means they have a criminal record. Certain employers won't hire people with records. Others have more of a ``don't ask, don't tell'' approach. A growing number of companies require applicants to take drug tests. The counselors will ask young people point blank if they can pass the tests. ``We will never refer a person who has no chance of being hired,'' says Susan Lange.

Lange's boss, Neil Sullivan, concedes that his organization is reaching deeper into the labor pool for this latest batch of recruits. He insists, though, that standards will not be compromised. ``Some people will fail,'' he says. ``There has to be failure, so everyone understands how serious this is.'' A number of young people the group has placed in the past year have been fired, usually for attendance problems. Even in the typical two-week job-training sessions, only 70 percent of those who start will make it until the end.

On a Tuesday afternoon in October, seven people show up for the first day of a new training session. This time, Manuel Molina and Kevin O'Neil are among them. Both are well dressed and eager to go. Both come back for the second day, too. But they do not return on the third day or any day after that. The news on them turns out to be discouraging. According to Leo Rull, O'Neil found a temporary job at a local warehouse and decided he didn't need the training. Molina will be even a tougher case, Rull concedes. ``I'll take him out to lunch next week and see what he needs,'' says Rull. An eternal optimist, Rull apparently believes that a fall down the chute is just another opportunity to climb back up the ladder.

In return for its $2.2 million, the federal government expects to see some results in Boston and other cities that are receiving help.

Specifically, the goal is to show significant increases in the number of young people going to school and working. The program's ambitious mission statement says it aims to ``change the culture'' of the neighborhoods it serves. According to Jed Hresko, that means creating positive role models. ``And enough of them so we get to the point where good things happen because they take on a life of their own.'' He envisions the day when kids sit up and take notice when they see their friends heading off to work in a shirt and tie or going to college. Just as neighborhoods ``tipped'' in the wrong direction under the influence of gangs and dropouts, says Hresko, they can tip back as successful kids become recognized for their accomplishments.

Although Boston isn't there yet, the early results of the program offer some modest reason to be encouraged. According to the Private Industry Council, 127 young people have started job-training classes over the past year. Of those, 93 finished and 78 have gone to work, at least for some time. Six of the original 127 wound up in jail. The dropouts fall into a number of categories. Some got fired; some found work on their own; some went into drug rehabilitation programs; some just went back home to hang out. The dropouts haven't fallen off the radar screen, though. The counselors have identified them and will keep after them. ``Unless a kid does something outrageous, we don't just drop them,'' says Lange. The thought is that those who have failed will try again eventually. The only criterion for admission, say the counselors, is a willingness to turn one's life around.

The people on the front lines show no signs of losing hope. They recognize that there will be slipping back, but they accept the fact that failure comes with the territory. ``These kids are still dealing with a lot of issues,'' says Nichelle Sadler. ``A lot are going to fall back into the old ways. They may not have the motivation yet. They are adolescents. They're babies. They're going to get into trouble. This program will work, but it won't happen overnight.''

Leo Rull certainly isn't giving up. Like the missionary he calls himself, he is out each day, saving one soul at a time. Recently, he paid a visit to a South Boston kid who is locked up at the Suffolk County House of Correction. Rull spoke to the young man over the summer and told him he was headed for trouble if his behavior didn't change. He was right. But when he visited the jail, it wasn't to gloat or say ``I told you so.''

Says Rull: ``I told him I won't give up on him. He is not hopeless. What I am hoping is that when he is in enough pain, instead of killing someone or himself, he will go for that other door. Me, I want that door to be open for him when he is ready to change.''

© Copyright 1998 Globe Newspaper Company

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