Connell School students mentor and befriend young adults at the Mattapan Teen Center.
The future nurses who make the weekly trip to MTC are students in Clinical Assistant Professor Donna Cullinan’s Population Health Practice in the Community course. In January, Cullinan will oversee a new group of undergraduates who will spend Tuesday afternoons and early evenings at this haven for young people in Mattapan, a neighborhood that has long struggled with crime, poverty, and unemployment.
Cullinan’s students have already worked in a variety of community settings, including homeless shelters, schools, and prisons. She calls the partnership with MTC “a win-win situation” that has benefited all of the young people from Mattapan and Boston College who come together under the center’s roof.
“My students come to better understand the lives of people living in poverty and the challenges they face, and how they can help them,” says Cullinan. Meanwhile, the young adults at the Mattapan Teen Center not only learn important lessons about health and self-care—they also have a chance to engage with college students just a few years older than they are, which helps some to see new possibilities for the future.
“My students come to better understand the lives of people living in poverty and the challenges they face, and how they can help them.”
MTC is part of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston, which was founded in 1893 with a stated mission to “ensure all young people in our community have the opportunity to realize their full potential.” Reaching for that goal can be a particularly daunting challenge for the young people of Mattapan. The community, where more than 90 percent of the residents are people of color and a significant portion are non-English-speaking immigrants from Haiti and other Caribbean countries, is located about six miles south of downtown Boston. While the overall crime rate in Boston has dropped six percent since last year, Mattapan has witnessed an eight percent increase. Many kids at MTC report that they know gang members.
Moreover, the proportion of households with children under 18 that are led by single mothers is twice as high in Mattapan as it is throughout Suffolk County (which comprises the cities of Boston, Chelsea, Revere, and Winthrop). Compared to the rest of the county, the median household income is 26 percent lower in Mattapan while the unemployment rate is 37 percent higher, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
Cullinan has a long history of working with the residents of Mattapan: She’s been doing diabetes screening and offering other primary care services at Mattapan Health Center’s annual Health Care Revival for the past decade. However, BC as an institution has historically had little presence there. This is something Neil McCullagh discovered when he arrived at Chestnut Hill in 2015 as executive director of the recently endowed Joseph E. Corcoran Center for Real Estate and Urban Action, part of the Carroll School of Management. The reason soon became apparent. “Mattapan is one of Boston’s neighborhoods with the greatest amount of need,” says McCullagh. “Yet it’s the least accessible neighborhood to the many anchor institutions in the city and in the region.”
The primary reason for this poor accessibility, McCullagh and his colleagues learned, is that Mattapan is not well served by public transportation. A BC student using the MBTA to travel to MTC in Mattapan has to take a Green Line train, switch to the Orange Line (following a six-minute walk through Back Bay), then grab a 31 bus at Forest Hills Station that makes a stop at Wellington Hill Street, a two-minute walk from the teen center. The entire journey takes about an hour and a half, on a good day.
To address this problem, in 2016 the Corcoran Center established the Mattapan Shuttle, which makes several trips and stops daily between campus and MTC, shortening the travel time to about 25 minutes. Improving access to Mattapan has contributed to a dynamic engagement with Boston College: Today, students across campus volunteer approximately 2,500 hours in the neighborhood per semester, in a variety of roles. (See sidebar.)
CSON’s partnership with MTC began when Cullinan contacted the Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston about having her students teach health basics at the clubs’ centers. She was soon working closely with Ronald Carroll, who has been MTC’s director of community and member engagement since the center opened in 2014. “I know Mattapan really, really well,” says Carroll, who grew up in nearby Milton, but hung out with friends in the neighborhood as a youth. “Young people want structure. They want to feel safe. They want caring adults to give them guidance and some sense of stability,” Carroll adds. “That’s what the Mattapan Teen Center does.”
The bright, colorful 7,000-square-foot space is equipped with computers, a music studio, gaming systems, and pool tables. On school days, 65 or more teens begin arriving at around 2:30 p.m. They can do as they please until 4:00 p.m., which is the start of “Power Hour,” when they’re required to shut off cell phones and video games, and get out their homework. Dinner is at 5:00 p.m., followed by structured programs from 6:00 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
During the later program block, Connell students present a health and wellness program for teens. Cullinan says she was sensitive from the outset of the project to the importance of first impressions. “We didn’t go marching in there saying, ‘We’re going to teach you about safe sex’ or whatever,” she says. “We took time to get to know the teens.” During the first few visits to MTC, they simply hung out with the Mattapan center regulars, playing games, listening to music, and helping with homework. They also talked a lot about their lives, sharing stories.
“The teens at MTC not only learn important lessons about health and self-care, they have a chance to engage with college students and see new possibilities for the future.”
The Connell School team asks teens at MTC what health issues interest them, then compiles the responses and assigns each topic to a pair of nursing students. They take turns, week by week, delivering presentations to a group of MTC teens. Past topics have included stress and depression, bullying on social media, and advice about a healthy diet and exercise.
The key to engaging the teens has been winning their trust, says CSON student Stephen Valvano ’20, who took Population Health and spent Tuesdays at MTC last spring. Valvano says he took pains to ensure that the teens knew he was deeply committed to working with them and not simply checking a box needed to pass a class. “Just wanting to be there made all the difference in the world, because they really picked up on that,” he says.
Valvano attended high school in another struggling community, Newark, New Jersey. “I was one of 10 kids who identified as white in a graduating class of 120,” he says. Many of his high school classmates lived with the same problems experienced by the teens he worked with at MTC—gang violence, going hungry at times, and parents who are substance abusers or absent altogether. Valvano, who plans to become a nurse practitioner, says his time at MTC (which included a job on staff over the summer) has helped convince him to devote at least part of his nursing career to working with urban youth. “I want to be one of those resources that can help make a difference,” he says, “even if it’s just one kid.”
In addition to the Connell School’s partnership with the Mattapan Teen Center, Boston College schools (Social Work, the Carroll School of Management, and CSON) and organizations (from the Theater Department to the Volunteer and Service Learning Center) have organized a number of efforts that aim to support Mattapan and other communities in need throughout Boston.
For example, members of 4Boston, a service organization within BC’s Campus Ministry, have cleaned and painted classrooms at the Mattahunt Elementary School and volunteered in after-school programs. Theater students have run improvisation classes at MTC and performed Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at the Mildred Avenue K–8 School.
Students participating in these efforts are helping to fulfill the promise of BC’s Strategic Plan, which aims to increase the University’s presence and impact in the city of Boston, across the country, and around the world.