EMMETT FOLGERT HAS gone with the flow for nearly 40 years at the Dorchester Youth Collaborative, a Fields Corner outpost that has helped generations of young people find a positive path while growing up in neighborhoods filled with lots of bad choices.
Folgert has adapted to the changing ways of the gangs he tries to keep kids away from, and he hasn’t missed a beat amid turnover in the racial and ethnic makeup of the neighborhoods served by the youth center he founded 39 years ago and still runs at age 70. But the coronavirus pandemic, which forced him to shutter the center, has presented perhaps the biggest challenge yet to the decidedly human touch that’s at the core of all Folgert does.
“We’re figuring it out as we’re going along here,” he said one day last week. Which helps explain why Folgert steered his Camry to a row of Dorchester triple-deckers with a can of Lysol and two $25 video game gift cards on the seat next to him.
In a ritual he’s repeating outside the homes of kids hunkered down on tough streets throughout the neighborhood, Folgert steps out of his car, dons a pair of gloves, and sprays the gift cards with disinfectant. He then lays them on the hood of his car and waits for 13-year-old Janilson Lopes to emerge from his house and scoop them up.
If there’s an absurdist quality to the scene, call it Folgert’s creative pandemic improvisation.
It’s become a way for him to stay connected to teens like Lopes and reward them for persevering with school work when it’s been weeks since they set foot in a classroom or at the Dorchester youth center that offers tutoring and serves as a second home for many during after school hours.
“It’s a huge loss for kids,” Folgert said of the closing of the youth center, a Dorchester anchor that has provided a safe refuge for hundreds of young people with lots of caring adults they can open up to.
“It was just shocking that it happened so quickly,” Lopes said of the sudden closure of the McCormack Middle School where he is an 8th grader. As for the youth center where he spent most afternoons and early evenings, he said, “It was really fun and gave me something to do after school and somewhere to get my work done.”
Whatever the hardships endured by all young people suddenly marooned at home, they are far greater for kids who live in tight quarters and tough neighborhoods.
Since the middle of March, Lopes has been holed up in the side street apartment off Bowdoin Street that he shares with his parents, an older brother and sister, and his grandmother.
Folgert says the area has long been a gang “hot spot” where guns are prevalent. “So he’s in the jackpot,” Folgert said, referring to a prize to be avoided.
When Lopes started coming to the Dorchester Youth Collaborative last fall, “he was just barely getting by at school,” Folgert said. But that’s changed over the course of the school year, with some help from a tutor at DYC, a dynamic civics teacher at his middle school, and Folgert’s quiet but steady counsel.
The youth center tries to pair young people with a staff member who serves as their primary mentor, but Folgert’s years at this work have taught him a very common sense way to do that. “We wait around and see who they choose to talk to,” said Folgert. “So he’s one of mine.”
Lopes said he’s trying to stick to a routine with getting up each day and doing school work. His parents, both Cape Verdean immigrants who work in a waterfront fish processing facility, start work at 5 am. They ask him every night if he’s completed his homework, but Lopes is largely on his own to do it.
“It doesn’t feel the same,” he said of remote learning. “It feels way more harder and more difficult than if there was a regular school day. It’s not like I’m being taught by someone.”
The gift cards that can be used on Fortnite, NBA 2K, and other video games Lopes and his peers love playing have become the currency Folgert uses to reward kids that are staying on track with their school work.
“After trying to get kids off video games for years, now we’re trying to get them back on,” Folgert said.
Some kids he mentors haven’t been as diligent with school work and Folgert tells them that means no cards. But plenty of them are getting the message. “I’ve got to slow these guys down. They’re just ripping through these freaking cards,” Folgert said.
Folgert and his staff at the youth center are doing Zoom meetings with kids, chatting on FaceTime, and texting to see how they’re doing and to prod them on school work.
The center has developed a particularly close connection with the McCormack Middle School, which sits adjacent to the UMass Boston campus in Dorchester. The youth collaborative draws lots of kids from the school to its afternoon and early evening programming, and Folgert has found an invaluable partner in Neema Avashia, a McCormack civics teacher with a passion for her students.
“She’s way more than a teacher,” said Folgert. “She’s critical to us. At any school we work with, we try to find the commissioner of small favors, the person you can go to to get things done and a teacher the kids trust and the families trust.”
He said Avashia is part of an informal network of teachers, youth workers, and community leaders who are working hard to keep kids on track while everything around them seems to have come undone.
“We are trying to figure out how you continue to partner and support kids when no one is actually seeing kids,” said Avashia, a 16-year veteran of the Boston schools. “We build relationships with young people. The work is relational, but it’s also physical — you are physically present with kids.” What’s going on now, she said, is “unmooring.”
Avashia does a Zoom session that kids can join for an hour each day, and spends another three to four hours a day texting with students or on FaceTime or other online connections with them.
“She texts me like four times a week,” said Lopes.
Along with regular reading assignments and written homework, she’s had online guest speakers in her civics classes — recently it was a public defender. “Just trying to figure out ways to help kids see that the world is bigger than their bedroom,” she said.
For all her efforts, Avashia said, nothing about the new normal is easy. While suburban kids might have college-educated parents who are working from home and can monitor and help them with homework, lots of kids at the McCormack have parents like Lopes’s who are at work all day.
“It’s really hard,” she said. “I would say about 50 percent of kids are completing work consistently, about 25 percent you can nudge and encourage get them to complete work, and there are about 25 percent where we’re still trying to figure out WiFi connections, or their sleep schedules are completely dysregulated, and their completely lost right now.”
School can be a very grounding place for kids in unstable homes or who live in neighborhoods plagued by violence, situations that describe daily life for a lot of Avashia’s students.
“All of those external factors become a lot more important in a time like this,” said Avashia. “And are a lot harder to control.”
She said the challenges include things as basic as access to a computer or crowded apartments where students can’t find a quiet place to do school work or be part of an online session. Lopes is now using one of the 30,000 Chromebooks the Boston Public Schools have given to students since schools closed.
“Meanwhile, there are kids in homes where every person already has a device,” said Avashia. “We talk about equity and we talk about opportunity gaps. This is not making those things any smaller.”
Avashia said Lopes has been coming through consistently despite the upheaval. “He is so on it,” she said. “He’s doing all his work.”
He’s not only been keeping up with his work, with help from Avashia and Folgert, he successfully submitted an application amidst the pandemic and was accepted to attend Cristo Rey Boston High School in the fall. The Catholic college preparatory school, located in Dorchester’s Savin Hill neighborhood, serves entirely lower-income students and provides full scholarships to the entire student body. It combines strong academics, geared toward students who may be behind grade level in reading and math, with a work placement experience — students spend one day a week at one of the school’s 120 job place sites, ranging from law firms to auto dealerships to hospitals.
Avashia worked online with Lopes to polish his application essay, and he had to handle an admissions interview via Zoom from his family’s apartment.
“Emmett really told me a bunch about the school, so I was really interested in going,” said Lopes.
“He’s doing his schoolwork, he’s excited about going to Cristo Rey next year — and he’s been bugging me about the game cards,” said Folgert, who marks victories one kid at a time.
Folgert worries a lot about what’s going on in the neighborhoods where Lopes and other teens who come to the youth center live. Lopes lives about half a mile from the spot where a 17-year-old girl was shot and killed last month at 3:30 on a Wednesday afternoon.
“The gang beefs are still going on,” Folgert said. “Now with people staying home, it’s easier for them to ambush their rivals.”
Though he’s mostly staying in touch with young people online, Folgert said even things like the quick encounter with Lopes at the elaborate game-card drop-off outside his house can feel very meaningful.
“You’re going into that crazy neighborhood and you’re saying, we’re here,” he said. “We may be behind a mask, we may be wearing gloves, but we’re here. That’s huge for a kid like that. You found a way to not disappear.”