Boston College students Alycia Johnson (left) and Catherine Simpkinson tutor schoolchildren at the Faneuil Gardens Community Center, which was built with BC's assistance. (Photo by Justin Knight)
A Center for Attention
BC joins with Brighton to provide youths with an alternative to the streets
By Reid Oslin
The opening of a community computer room and youth recreation center in Brighton, thanks to the efforts of the Boston College Neighborhood Center, BC students and several University academic departments, has been hailed by city leaders as the type of town-gown partnership that can help ease Boston's escalating pattern of teen violence.
This past June, the Faneuil Gardens Tenant Organization of Brighton formally unveiled the "Faneuil Gardens Community Center and Boston College Computer Lab." What was once a "dank, dark and bleak" basement, as described by a BC administrator, is now a popular site of recreational and educational activity for youths who might otherwise be on the streets.
"This will help us to become a real family-based community," said Ruth Stone, who chairs the FGTO board. "It gives our teens a safe place to have some fun with some adult supervision, and gives us a base on which we can build some strength in our community."
BC supported the initiative every step of the way, and the University's involvement didn't end with the opening of the center's doors.
As University and neighborhood representatives attest, a community center seemed a badly needed, yet unattainable, objective for Faneuil Gardens residents shouldering the realities of shrinking municipal budgets and increasing youth problems.
"Last year, the Boston Housing Authority did away with the youth worker who was at Faneuil Gardens," said Richard "Moe" Maloney, assistant to BC Neighborhood Center Director Maria DiChiappari. "They hired an extra policeman.
"Now, even the police agree that you are better off having a youth worker than a policeman, because you are keeping the kids off of the street," said Maloney, who grew up almost directly across the street from Faneuil Gardens. "The kids were out on the street and they had no place to go after school. That's where the idea [of a community center] started."
Maloney and BC's now-retired Director of Community Affairs Jean S. McKeigue teamed up to help find a solution to the problem.
It wasn't easy. Bureaucratic roadblocks popped up from every angle, Maloney said, and residents figured there was little chance for a community center.
"We had a meeting one day and everybody had pretty much given up," recalled Maloney. "I said, 'No - we're not finished fighting yet.'"
Maloney and McKeigue enlisted the help of the Faneuil Garden Tenants Organization and management as well as community leaders like State Sen. Steven Tolman (D-Brighton) and State Rep. Kevin Honan (D-Brighton) and housing officials from the Win/Peabody Cruz Management Corp. Together, they persuaded BHA officials to provide a long-neglected basement storage area for the center.
The basement, which had been constructed in the late 1940s and built to double as a nuclear bomb shelter, needed plenty of work before it was fit for any type of community use. "When we first went in there, the tiles were broken, the windows had newspapers covering them. It was dark, dank and bleak," DiChiappari said.
So Maloney put out the word on the BC campus that some hands-on help was needed - and help came in droves. Undergrads from BC's Appalachian Volunteers signed on to assist in the cleanup. Law School students dedicated a weekend to repaint the spacious basement area in bright pastel colors. MBA candidates from the Carroll Graduate School of Management planted flowers and spruced up the outside of the new center.
"It's just mind-boggling how many BC kids help out with these kinds of projects," Maloney said. "A new group, Loyola Volunteers, took on this as their first program. Last year, we had 10 to 12 students who would come three or four days a week, sometimes for three or four hours a day."
Many BC students also started working with young residents on homework assignments and after-school socializing, Maloney said.
"The BHA people were so impressed with the students' work that they came in and retiled the entire floor," said Maloney, who along with McKeigue was honored at the dedication ceremony for their efforts on behalf of the project.
Boston College Facilities Management supplied surplus furniture to furnish the rooms and BC's Information Technology Department provided and installed recycled computers for the new facility.
With the start of the new school year, the Faneuil Gardens center is up and running and has proven to be a popular spot with neighborhood teens, as well as adults, say BC and center staff.
"There are a lot of programs starting there now," Maloney said. "We have programs where adults are learning how to use computers, we have bingo games, there's a whole range of activities."
On the teen side, the recreation area was furnished with computer software and recreational equipment funded by grants from the Allston-Brighton Boston College Community Fund, and the center has formed associations with other youth activity centers in the surrounding neighborhoods.
BC students have resumed their tutoring and mentoring projects at the center, and staff members say teen attendance at the new facility has steadily increased each week since school opened in September.
"It was a community-based endeavor that created this," Stone said. "We envision that this is the beginning of a lot of networking, a lot of support for different issues in our community."