Common Ground,
The Newspaper of the New England Association of Child Welfare Commissioners and Directors

May 2008


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Common Ground,
Volume XXIII, Number 1
May 2008

Emerging Leaders
By Alisha Perdue

Chicken Fingers First

Ricardo** immediately impresses me with his positive attitude, eloquent language and career goals. I inquire about his future plans and he explains his dreams for employment, school and a family. He is on track for a new certification that we are both convinced will secure a well paying job. During previous classes together, I witnessed the support his girlfriend and family provide. I’m also told that Ricardo’s teacher remarked how well he was doing in school. Without question, Ricardo is an emerging leader.

Ricardo could be on his way to the American dream of a college degree, a house with white-picket fence and two- car garage. He could also become a happily married man with 2.4 kids and a healthy 401k but first he has to finish his dinner of chicken strips, cole slaw and french fries.

Like the other kids in the lifeguard certification class, Ricardo worked up an appetite in the pool with his training. He hopes he passes the class and obtains a job this summer. The extra money from lifeguarding is especially important since his girlfriend is pregnant. When his caseworker drops him off at his foster home he will study for geometry so that he does not have to drop out of school. Even through adversity, Ricardo is an emerging leader.

Roxbury Youthworks, Inc. (RYI) supports youth like Ricardo all over Greater Boston to become leaders. RYI staff ask youth how they define success. Often times the answers include: A house. Cars. Nice clothes. Exotic trips. As a community-based organization that serves 700 youth adjudicated by the court, RYI not only asks them pointed questions, but also expects difficult answers after careful self-review. Whether it is during a one-on-one meeting, youth group or clinical assessment, staff set in motion answers for a better future, wherever the youth is on life’s path.

RYI staff will ask youth what do they need to do in order to acquire the material things they covet? The youth answer, Go to school. Get good grades. Get a job. Stay off the streets. Stay out of trouble. Make new friends. Talk to my parents. Listen to my caseworkers. Be a role model.

And, become leaders.

Mission and History

Roxbury Youthworks is a community-based non-profit organization. Our mission is to help youth caught in cycles of poverty, victimization, and violence to transition successfully to adulthood.

In 1981 RYI was incorporated as a nonprofit organization by the Honorable (ret.) Julian Houston to offer community- based alternatives to youth coming before the Roxbury District Court.

Since then we have not wavered from the founding principle to eradicate obstacles that stand in the way of a troubled youth’s development. We combat the roots of juvenile justice in the inner-city neighborhoods by providing innovative support services. We help youth transition safely and effectively back to their neighborhoods and create healthy relationships with adults. And, we work with youth on their values and positive decision-making through a number of programs and services in order to tap into their own leadership potential.

Program and services

In order to be a community leader and provide the most effective programs, government agencies contract services with RYI. For example, RYI is the Lead Agency for the Dimock Street Area Office with the Department of Children and Families (DSS). As the lead agency, RYI manages services for youth and families that include: family stabilization, intensive foster care and group care such as residential and group homes.

We are also a network provider with The Edge and the A Way Back programs. The Edge is an after-school program that provides DSS youth and their families support through recreation; informal family mediation; and psycho-educational groups that help youth develop healthy decision-making. The A Way Back’s mission is to prevent and/or reduce a youth’s risk of exposure to, and exploitation by, members of Boston’s sex trade industry. We are one the only agency dedicated to working sexually exploited females.

RYI partners with the Department of Youth Services (DYS) to provide after school programming through our Community Re-entry Centers (CRCs). The CRCs guide youth who are transitioning from DYS secure treatment facilities and residential placements back to their home and community. The success of this program is dependent upon four critical components: individualized assessment, support, and connection; positive programming; intensive supervision; and monitoring. The CRCs support youth in setting positive life goals, helping them to understand consequences of poor decision-making and recognizing the rewards of their actions.

The Female Focus Initiative (FFI) is Boston’s first female CRC through a partnership with DYS. Recognizing that the majority of community-based juvenile delinquency prevention and intervention programs were mainly geared toward young men, FFI was formed to provide recreational, educational, and cultural programming for young women who are involved in the juvenile justice system. Finally, RYI operates the Juvenile Court Clinic within the Roxbury and Dorchester District Courts. Staffing for this clinic includes licensed clinical social workers and a psychologist. Court Clinic staff assesses the social and mental health needs of court referred adolescents and their families; makes recommendations to the Court; and counsels both individuals and groups.

Youth development

Without question, youth like Ricardo are emerging leaders. RYI fosters the belief that our young people can be, and already are, leaders no matter if they lead a group, one other person or just him or herself. A leader, or an emerging leader, however, is always someone that remains committed to positive decision-making and acts on it.

For those that wish to be a peer-leader, the agency sponsors the Youth Citizens Committee (YCC), which is comprised of eight (8) youth and two (2) senior managers at each center. The YCC is similar to other committees in that it meets regularly, follows an agenda, identifies needs and creates positive change for the rest of the center. Frequently, one of the teens will pick up their committee handbook for reference – a handbook that they helped write and then passed for governance. It makes no difference that some of the members of the YCC committed a past delinquent act. Each youth is now making positive decisions and using his/her influence or power for the good of others.

Many RYI youth are involved in “Ready, Train, Hire,” which is a comprehensive plan that helps “ready” youth with intensive mentoring and advocacy; “trains” them with the proper education or certifications and character development; and assists with their “hire” by future employers. For some youth it is a second chance on a new life path that was once headed in the wrong direction. RYI’s lifeguard training has been a popular element of the initiative. Approximately 50 youth have taken the certification class and many graduates are lifeguards in and around Boston.


Ricardo is just one of the many youth RYI connects with every year. Our greatest achievement is the number of youth, like Ricardo, who have gone on to develop positive relationships with their families and communities. Roxbury Youthworks is committed to assisting, leading and “life-guarding” high-risk/at-risk youth who are struggling to overcome life’s challenges. Our goal is to work with youth to tap into their leadership potential to bring about change not only in them, but also in those with whom they communicate and interact.

After one of the last lifeguard classes we went out to eat and Ricardo ordered his usual chicken fingers, cole slaw and French fries. I asked him if he had a preference where he wanted to work once certified. He didn’t care where the pool was located and like any teenager he stated that he just wanted to make a lot of money! He also said it would be kind of “cool” to stand watch over the kids that were swimming. Without question, Ricardo is an emerging leader.

**Name has been changed.

Alisha Perdue is the former Director of Development at Roxbury Youthworks, Inc, where she served in that capacity for six years. A former lifeguard, she enjoyed volunteering at the pool for Ready, Train, Hire’s lifeguard certification and especially liked eating and talking with the kids after class.