Youth center opens in Lynn

LYNN -- School is out for the summer, but at a new youth and young adult center at St. Joseph Parish in Lynn, the learning hasn't stopped.

The center, headed by pastor Father Israel Rodriguez and Father Wellington Oliveira, parochial-vicar of the parish and center coordinator, is currently running a five-week program for middle school and high school students in the area.

The free program offers English as a second language classes to the students, many, if not all, of whom are children of immigrants or immigrants themselves. The classes are designed to help them gain a better grasp of the English language.

Middle school students, ranging from those in grades four to eight, are able to attend the program during the day, Monday through Friday, from 9:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. High school students may attend at night, Tuesdays and Thursdays, from around 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.

Speaking to The Pilot at St. Joseph Parish on July 21, the end of the first week of the program, Father Oliveira noted there are about 60 middle school students and around 15 high school students attending the program.

The new center and the program, Father Oliveira said, are products of Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley's love of the immigrant populations in the Archdiocese of Boston and his commitment to keeping youth and young adults safe.

"Cardinal Seán O'Malley is the heart of this project," said Father Oliveira, who was just ordained to the priesthood in May.

"We opened because of him, we are obeying him and we are happy to do so," he said.

According to Father Oliveira, it was the cardinal who "started this whole thing," contacting a donor who was able to provide funding and facilitating archdiocesan support for the center.

There are three planned phases for the center, Father Oliveira said.

The first was a one-week program earlier this summer that served as an "appetizer," he said, giving youth and parents a look at what was to come and giving the center an idea of what needed to be adjusted for the future.

The five-week program, beginning on July 17, was the second phase, while the third phase is a planned full-year program, although the details of that have not been finalized.

The idea behind each phase, and behind the center itself, is to not only provide youth with ESL classes, but to also help them grow spiritually, and allow them to connect with other young people.

The center is also a way to keep the youth of Lynn safe.

"There are many kids that are dying," said Father Oliveira, speaking about gun violence in the city, noting that there are "38 gangs here in Lynn."

The center provides the young people with an alternative to hanging out in the streets or staying home alone while their parents are at work.

We want to "be close to them, to be a presence for them, to have the Church as a home for them so that they may not feel judged when they need to talk," said Father Oliveira.

"That is our intention with the center."

Father Oliveira wasn't supposed to be coordinator for the center, but after the person who was meant to take on the job took another position, he stepped up to the task, relying on years of experience as a high school principal in his home country of Brazil.

The five-week program has four paid tutors and several volunteers that help run it. Middle schoolers in the program enjoy a breakfast, a period learning, a lunch, and then an afternoon of fun activities, including playing basketball or soccer indoors, volleyball outdoors, or taking advantage of the center's game room.

Many of the items were donated to the center, or Father Oliveira was able to purchase at a reduced price.

He recalled, after realizing he could not afford a pool table, turning to a seminarian he was with and saying how he wished he could have one for his center. Immediately afterward, Father Rodriguez called to inform him someone was willing to donate a profession pool table.

Other "coincidences" like that have happened, although Father Oliveira doesn't believe they are coincidences at all.

"God is opening the way," he said.

There are four classes in the five-week program, and students are separated into the classes based on their levels of English language comprehension. Still, even in a single class the level of comprehension seems to vary from student to student.

Susanna Noe, a recent graduate of Emmanuel College, is one of the tutors. She graduated with a bachelor's degree in English and enjoys tutoring the youth.

Noe said she had been reviewing tenses and forms of speech with the students, breaking the class time up into lectures followed by games or group activities.

"We start off very basic, because there are students in the class that are on a lower level," she said, July 21.

"Most kids are fluent and just have issues with literacy, comprehension and things like that. We do a variation -- I try to start off pretty easy, and then try to do something a little more advanced, to challenge them," she continued.

The four classrooms contain smartboards, which were donated to the center, as well as desks. A number of computers were also purchased for the center.

Father Oliveira said he wants to take fieldtrips with the students, and plans on bringing in guest speakers.

While the middle school students follow a fairly strict schedule, the high school students have more freedom. Father Oliveira said he is careful to listen to their requests, allowing them more class time or more leisure and sport time as needed.

"I want to be flexible to meet the needs and expectations they have about the program," he said.

As for the third phase, the full-year program, Fathers Oliveira and Rodriguez still don't have a concrete plan of what that will look like, but they know they want to do it.

"Our reward is to see the kids happy and learning," said Father Rodriguez.