Excited students, parents, friends and family members gathered this past Thursday, June 2, at the Jorge Hernandez Cultural Center where 31 students of the St. Stephen’s Youth Program were graduating and moving on to a new challenge in their lives after what seemed like a lifetime of challenges within the well-regarded program.
The program serves students of the community and helps them make it through grade school and into college.
“We serve kids from kindergarten through 8th grade,” said Kasey Boston, director of Youth Employment and Leadership. “We have a teen program that we take teens from the community and we hire them as counselors in training as a tutor and a mentor and they can work with the younger children. We also provide them with their own programming, they have Thursday night professional development training, SAT prep and academic night. We call it the circle of care. We visit their schools, talk to their teachers and give them a holistic approach to developing.”
Teens in the program do more than just study. They work with the younger students and mentor them, they learn life skills by caring for the youth center and they help in the summer time on field trips and youth support.
“We have a lot going on,” said Kate Hornstein, director of Development and Communications. “During the school year we have programs that start after school and go to about 8 p.m. We have kids coming in for academic enrichment and then in the evening it’s more of a teen focus, where kids are coming in to do community organizing and other academic enrichment, career counseling and working with mentors.”
The students receive social and emotional support from the St. Stephen’s staff and the volunteer mentors. They are like a giant family. The program itself is what Tim Crellin, priest and executive director, calls a generational test.
For example, two of the students who just graduated were just infants when he came to St. Stephen’s.
“My time here has been shaped by the time I spent with fellow teens and teachers,” said alumni student Pedro Cardosa as he addressed the audience. “I see how every little task helps me achieve our goals.”
The program has gown every year. Last year there were 19 students who graduated and this year there are 31 – 30 of whom are going to college and one to beauty school. Most of the students have been enrolled from elementary schools like the Curley and Blackstone, but in the summer students from all over take part in the program. The students graduating this year come from high schools all over Boston.
“I am a big fan of the program,” said State Rep. Byron Rushing. “I think St. Stephen’s has been doing a fantastic job interacting with the young people and getting the young people to understand their potential and to start doing those things right now at their age. It’s exciting to see this group of people graduating from this number of high schools and all seeming to know what they are going to do not only next fall, but also this summer. They are all organized and this all comes from being in a program that is structured to help younger people, and to have older students help younger students and all of the students getting involved in the community.”
The program itself, which guides students into and during college, started in a church but holds no religious programming.
“There’s no religious aspect of the program, but it was started in a church basement to address the needs of the community,” said Betsy Walsh, partner organizer. Walsh helps herd over 50 parishes into getting the support they need to operate the programming offered.
Even after graduating, the program stays with the students.
“We try to connect students with resources. How can we support them in that first year to make sure they make it and don’t drop out and finish college in four years?” said Jeremy Kazanjian-Amory, director of College Access and Success.
Amory says it’s important to not only find the right financially viable school, but also the right culturally fit location for the students. The mentors help each student find the right path.
One student who wanted to go to nursing school decided not to do so at the last minute when presented with the cost of college and the debt she would incur. Her mentor, Blake Sims, stopped her in her tracks and found a community college and financially viable track that could still lead to her goal of becoming a nurse.
The evening ended with each student taking stage, just as a high school graduation, and walking off with a little support bag and a framed portrait of themselves taken by one of their fellow students. State Rep. Byron Rushing told the students, “You should be no place that you feel you can’t change the world.”
Alumni Pedro Cardosa ended his speech with, “This program has prepared me for the rest of my life,” and with that pronouncement, St. Stephen’s Youth Programs finds success each year.