The promise of opportunity

It is an April rite of passage for high school seniors: awaiting responses from college admissions offices. Anxiety and tension abound as young men and women wait and wonder: will I be accepted to the college of my choice?

So it is for the high school seniors who come to the Catholic Charities Teen Center at St. Peters. There, 23 of our 25 high school seniors are awaiting answers from colleges including UMass Boston, UMass Dartmouth, Newbury College, University of Bridgeport, Spellman College, and Northeastern University, to name just a few.

Tony is one such student. A reserved young man with a ready smile, Tony moved with his mother and brothers from Cape Verde to the United States just as he was beginning high school. Speaking no English, Tony was enrolled in a Boston public high school. His mother was sure to enroll him at the Teen Center so that Tony would get the support he needed to be successful. He attends the center daily, arriving after finishing work at an afterschool job, earning money his family relies on to get by. He also watches his younger brother while his mother works. Tony is hoping to attend a local college. He worries that if he is far away, he will be unable to help support his family or care for his brother.

Opened in 2002, the Teen Center was developed by Catholic Charities in partnership with Dorchester's newly arriving Cape Verdean families. Parents were clearly concerned about their children, and wanted to develop programs that would help them be both safe and successful. From its start as a small discussion group for neighborhood teens, the Teen Center has grown dramatically over the years. Located in a newly renovated St. Peter's School building in Dorchester's Bowdoin/Geneva neighborhood, a neighborhood better known recently as one of the city's "hot spots" for youth violence, the Teen Center serves more than 350 young students, aged 12 to 19 in grades 7 to 12, annually. We welcome the students each week day from 2 p.m. to 9 p.m. for our comprehensive academic, athletic, and recreational programming.

Reflecting the demographics of the immediate neighborhood, Teen Center youth are 90 percent Cape Verdean and many are newly arrived or first generation immigrants. More than 80 percent of Teen Center youth are from families with low-socio-economic status. Like Tony, more than 70 percent of youth enrolled at the Center are not literate in English when they enter the program. Teen Center staff members, however, are all bi- or tri-lingual to accommodate the linguistic and cultural needs of the youth enrolled. Due to the Teen Center's efforts, 100 percent are literate by the end of their first year. Sadly, all have been affected by the street violence in their neighborhoods: 99 percent of the teens know a young person lost to the violence that surrounds them.

The Teen Center is committed to not only getting youth off the street, but also to providing teens with the skills required to succeed over the long-term. Every day, teens are engaged in activities focused on a variety of subjects including English literacy, financial literacy, obtaining and maintaining a job, community service, computer literacy, and academic help in all school subjects. The Teen Center has employed teens as an integral part of the center's programming since 2003. Teens are hired as either Counselors In Training (CIT's) or Peer Leaders, depending on their age and experience.

One of the important aspects of the academic help provided to the students includes MCAS prep, SAT prep and college search help. Using a recently donated computer lab, staff guide the teens through the steps necessary to complete successful applications. Oftentimes, our teens are the first in their families to even apply to college, let alone be in the position to receive acceptance letters. In addition to helping with the applications, the staff schedule regular college-visit field trips that allow interested teens to experience a college campus for the first time. Like Tony, these college visits have a tremendous impact on a young student who may have never imagined that they could attend college.

Also like Tony, we are saying prayers as our Teen Center high school seniors await their college acceptance letters; knowing that these letters come with the hope and promise of opportunity, which can change a person's life forever.

Debbie Rambo is president of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Boston.