When Rev. Tim Crellin decided 20 years ago that St. Stephen’s Church needed to put something together to get kids off the streets of the South End – which were far more dangerous than they are today – he had no idea that the effort would grow into an established summer program relied upon by more than 600 kids throughout Boston and Chelsea.
From humble beginnings, shat he and the church have built, he said, is a summer family made up of kids of all walks of life who have turned from summer boredom to summer success.
“One of our neighbors remarked that we started out in the basement of our South End church with myself, 20 kids and a box of Crayons,” said Crellin during the 20th anniversary party at Carson Beach on July 26. “I always tell them that they are exaggerating because we didn’t even have any Crayons. There was obviously a need because so many kids wanted to come. In that first summer we met 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day for four weeks. Then next summer we went from 20 kids to 40 kids. The next summer we had about 100 in St. Stephen’s.”
Soon enough, with help from the City summer jobs program, B-SAFE had expanded to other locations in Dorchester, Mattapan and Chelsea – this year boasting 650 kids in the program, more than 1,000 in the program counting the staff mentors from the City jobs program and St. Stephen’s.
It’s a far cry from anything that Crellin could have believed would happen at his small church in the South End – but certainly was a direct response to serving the community around that church.
In fact, Crellin first came to the South End in 1991 as a youth worker out of St. Stephen’s who was doing gang intervention during a time when the South End and other Boston neighborhoods were seeing an historic spike in street violence and gang activity.
During that time, he had a chance to become a reverend in the Episcopal Church, and was ordained as a minister shortly after. While serving at another church in the area, he was presented with the opportunity to return to St. Stephen’s to lead the church – an opportunity he accepted in the fall of 1999.
“I don’t know if I ever imagined anything like what we have here happening in the beginning,” he said. “A lot of my early work here was in gang intervention, so I could see at the time that this was important. There was a very big gang culture in Villa Victoria and Lenox and the South End. I saw clearly that we needed to start with the 5-year-olds and working with them in the summer and after school so they have good things to do. Combined with our after-school program, the summer program was a shot at creating a circle of care. It’s so they know they have options. To be able to say to a 5-year-old we’ll be here for you when you get to high school and off to college – that’s powerful.”
B-SAFE is not a religious program, and Crellin said he resisted it having a religious component because he didn’t want it to become vacation Bible School and perhaps discourage those of different backgrounds from attending. That said, St. Stephen’s members and 55 partner churches (mostly Episcopal churches from all over Greater Boston) have a large role in helping out the summer program. Instead of getting involved in the cumbersome federal government summer meals program, each church sees it as their summer mission to provide home-cooked meals and snacks to the kids in the program for one week apiece. They also help organize that week’s field trip outside of the city. The church also subsidizes a lot of the expenses too. Since the program is for low-income kids predominately, everyone pays on a sliding scale, yet no one pays more than $140 for the summer. Expenses, however, run at about $900 per kid.
And the church also provides an academic curriculum, so students have mentors that work with them on math, English, science and reading every morning at B-SAFE. The afternoons, however, are reserved for having fun and going on adventurous field trips.
Campers and former campers – many of whom return as mentors and staff – all have nothing but great things to say about the program.
“I think it would have been so sad if I would have never gotten to find my St. Stephen’s family,” said Hanna Abate, whose family found out about the program as their Somali church rents a property from St. Stephen’s. The middle-schooler has been coming since she was 5.
Added Destiny Hernandez, who started at age 6, “My mother put me in St. Stephen’s and ever since I’ve gone and made so many friends. I don’t know what I would have done every summer. I would have been so bored without St. Stephen’s.”
Others, such as Ashley Dubois grew up in St. Stephen’s and participated in the entirety of the program. Now, as a junior at Fitchburg State, she said she makes a point out of returning to mentor and teach younger kids in the summer program.
“It’s really what I look forward to each summer,” she said. “I do it for the kids because I was one of them not too long ago. I would say it’s the highlight of my summer.”
Crellin said that looking out at the hundreds of kids on Carson Beach on July 26 was refreshing, knowing that it came from such humble beginnings in a South End church basement two decades ago. He said he knows that the kids will benefit, if not from just being away from the television and video games like Fortnight.
“Keeping them busy, it’s everything,” he said.