A day at the zoo

On July 9, 2019, I had the wonderful opportunity to visit the Franklin Park Zoo with the St. Stephen’s Learn site. On this extremely hot day, my friend Semaj and I walked around the entire zoo looking at the variety of animals the zoo had to offer. Our first adventure led us to the lions. However, the lions understood the extremely hot day and found refuge under a large tree. They were unmoving and left the children unsatisfied because they wanted to hear the lions roar. Feeling saddened by the lions’ inability to move around, Semaj and I left to explore the rest of the zoo, in particular, the giraffe section. Semaj asked all types of questions to the zoo worker about the body of the giraffe and what kind of food they eat in the wild. She really enjoyed the fact that the giraffe is really tall and she wanted to ride it!

After leaving the giraffe section, we ventured onto the gorilla enclosure in time to see the pregnant gorilla mother and the Silver Back. Semaj began telling me about “Big Joe”. At first I was extremely confused because I have never heard about a gorilla named “Big Joe”, after entering the enclosure, I understood what she was talking about. The large Silver Back gorilla was named Big Joe and was in the enclosure along with the baby gorilla and the pregnant mother. This was the best part of the zoo because we were really engaged with the gorillas, and we even got to speak with the zoo staff again and ask more questions. After exiting the enclosure it was time to head back to St. Stephens for dismissal, and I could tell all the youth had a wonderful time. 

Deedee Evans, B-SAFE program staff

20th Anniversary of B-SAFE Featured in Episcopal Diocese of Mass E-News

“No small thing:” 20 years of B-SAFE and time to celebrate: By the numbers, B-SAFE is nearly 700 city children and youth learning and having fun together in a safe community environment over five weeks in July and August at six Episcopal school and church sites in Boston's South End, Roxbury, Mattapan and Dorchester neighborhoods and in Chelsea--all with the support of 50-plus Episcopal churches from eight of the diocese's 12 deaneries, whose volunteers provide daily lunch and snacks, read books with the kids and organize Friday field trips. It's also 150 teen jobs for counselors and junior counselors in training.

But the big number this year? Twenty. B-SAFE--short for Bishop's Summer Academic and Fun Enrichment program--turns 20 this year and plans to celebrate in July with a day of fun and games at Carson Beach in South Boston for everyone involved with B-SAFE.

Twenty was also a big number back in 1999, when what would become B-SAFE was still a start-up day camp at St. Stephen's Church: That first summer, St. Stephen's gathered 20 children who needed a safe place to go at a time when the neighborhood was a hot spot for gang violence.

In a word: "Amazing," said the Rev. Tim Crellin in a recent conversation about B-SAFE's 20 years. He is the vicar of St. Stephen's Church (where he got his own start in 1991 as a youth worker) and the executive director of the now year-round St. Stephen's Youth Programs of which B-SAFE is a critical component.

A lot has changed over the past two decades, with gentrification in and around his mission church's South End neighborhood, but the gap between rich and poor in the city has only grown, Crellin said, and summer is still a problem for low-income families. "All of our sites are full and we have a huge wait list for teen jobs, so I think the need for safe, meaningful summer programming is as strong as it's ever been," he said.

Crellin credits the many partner churches from across the diocese for helping to make 20 years of B-SAFE possible and, in turn, its exponential impact on the lives of vulnerable children and youth. It's also mission strategy in action, he said, as it continues to draw Episcopalians together across geography and difference to build relationships, engage the world and, in the process, reimagine what church can look like.

"It's not a small thing," Crellin said of the time, energy, money and care that Episcopal churches offer to B-SAFE every summer. "We're just so grateful that people continue to take that on and see it as an important part of what they do. For a lot of partner churches, it is one of their main outreach activities for the year, and they do it, I think, because they love it. That's one of my favorite things about it, and has been since the beginning."

His words of advice for those who feel a call to new mission? “Open the door, invite people to come in, and listen to them, hear what they think they need and see where you can work with people. We started with 20 kids.”


Adventures in Service: The April 2019 BRIDGE Trip

Our suitcases have long been unpacked, and we’ve had ample time to catch up on sleep, but I don’t think of any of the 2019 April BRIDGE trip team will ever forget our adventure. It was quite the prospect: 15 selfless teens giving up their Spring Break to go with 5 very patient and flexible adults down to rural North Carolina to work on service projects for low-income community members. We saw it all: dusty PVC pipe, splintering wood, BUGS, horses, a cattle drive, a real-live cave, and even the legendary Krispy Kreme! It all started long before April though, with lots of planning and fundraising.

BRIDGE trips have been a St. Stephen’s tradition for 5 years now, and this year teens had the option of a college -tour trip during February break, or a service trip in April. Some teens even did both! In order to raise the money to fund the trip, teens sold boxes and boxes of candy bars, spread the word about a gofundme page, made and sold dog treats, and got up early one Sunday to do a soup fundraiser at a partner church. They worked very hard, making time in their busy schedules to make this trip a reality. We were also very fortunate to get a grant from Quest Adventures! As the fundraising happened, the whole team also met weekly for bonding, planning and researching the area we would be visiting. On the last meeting before the trip, we channeled our creative sides and made some awesome tie-dyed trip shirts!

The time finally came to fly down to North Carolina, and it was quite a journey. From bus, to shuttle, to plane, to rental van, our crew patiently trekked southward. We settled into the rural Air BnB we would be living in and looked out across the amazing landscape. One teen mentioned how amazing it was to see so much of the sky and stars. I was in awe of how far out you could look, viewing the flowers, rolling grassy hills, and even the blue mountains in the distance. While enjoying this bucolic paradise, our team did a lot of hard work for the local community. On the first day, we cleaned and organized a warehouse of second-hand housing materials that would become a discount store. It would soon open for community members to buy materials to repair their houses at an affordable price. We worked so quickly - moving large amounts of wood, organizing PVC pipe, cleaning up dust and throwing out trash - that the site manager started running out of things for us to do. He didn’t expect us to do so much, so quickly! The second day we helped clean out the house of a woman who had been a hoarder for years. I have never been so impressed by teens. The work was downright disgusting, but they worked diligently and selflessly to give the woman there a healthier living space. They did what even many adults wouldn’t be able to do. On the final day of service, we visited the farm of two elderly women and helped with a variety of chores and projects.

In between all the hard work, we made sure to have some fun and learn about where we were. We visited Mars Hill University, the alma mater of one of our staff chaperones, and current home to Dede, an SSYP alum who was inspired to go there after going on the BRIDGE trip herself last year! One day, we visited Glory Ridge, a beautiful camp where past BRIDGE teams have stayed, and had a very exciting water gun battle. Another afternoon, some of our local friends brought us to a secret cave! Throughout the week, we also made sure to keep spirits high with lots of good food and milkshakes, and on our last day we visited Krispy Kreme (after burning a lot of calories at Skyzone.) It was an amazing time, and I think we all grew in strength and confidence. Teens who had confided before the trip that they were nervous about the way we would feel about them after living with them for a week, were able to feel the love by the end. Teens who tried to persuade me they couldn’t cook were seen casually flipping burgers. Challenges and fearful situations were faced daily, from climbing ladders, to being around big dogs. Even I gained skill and confidence doing something I never pictured myself doing - driving a van up narrow, curvy mountain roads (some of which were just made of dirt!) All in all, the trip was a success. There were challenges and things we could learn from for next year, but our main goal was accomplished - our amazing young people saw another part of the country, and grew in maturity, confidence, strength and joy.

By Jennie Bruno, JCIT Coordinator, Massachusetts Promise Fellow


Stories: In our Books, in our Library, in our Lives

I could tell you so many stories about the students who come to the Blackstone School Library. There is the girl who likes to help in the library during her free period and has become our unofficial intern.  There are the two boys who come together between classes and exchange their just-read books for new ones multiple times a week. There is the kindergarten class who spontaneously hugged all of the library volunteers the first time we saw them again after holiday break.

As library volunteers, we spend only a short time with these students each week, and so really getting to know their individual stories can be challenging.  But sometimes reading a book aloud together helps connect us more deeply. For me, a book that stands out in this regard is Planting  Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpré by Anika Aldamuy Denise (illustrated by Paola Escobar). 

Pura Belpré was originally from Puerto Rico and came to New York City in 1926.  She became the first Latina librarian in the New York Public Library system, and a children’s book author whose books focused on traditional stories from Puerto Rico.  Ms. Belpré noticed that her culture’s stories were missing from the shelves of the library, so she started to write books to change that.

I read this picture book to a second grade class earlier this year. In Denise’s book, there are scenes of San Juan in the opening pages. A number of students in the class have parents or grandparents from Puerto Rico.  Some have been there themselves. They pointed to the trees pictured in the book that looked like ones they have seen. 

Further on in the book, there is a picture of Ms. Belpré sitting in a chair, with children sitting on a rug on the floor listening to her.  Ms. Belpré is telling the children a story. When we read this page, one of the boys in our class said, “Look, that’s just like us.”

And I thought, "Yes, here we are sharing a story."  Sharing stories together means this: we laugh, we learn about “bicycle face” or being brave or haikus,* we discover new places, we meet wonderful characters, we connect across our different ages and backgrounds.  We meet one another in stories.

And I know my life is richer because of that.  I hope that in some small way the lives of the students who come to the Blackstone Library are richer, too.

*Picture book references:

Born to Ride: A Story About Bicycle Face by Larissa Theule (illustrated by Kelsey Garrity-Riley)

When You Are Brave by Pat Zietlow Miller (illustrated by Eliza Wheeler)

Basho and the Fox by Tim Myers (illustrated by Oki S. Han) 

By Lucy Costa, Blackstone School Library Volunteer

Lucy Costa is in her second year as a volunteer with the Blackstone Library Friday team.  Lucy serves as a recovery casework supervisor with the Red Cross of Massachusetts. She is also a Girl Scout leader and a member of Old South Church in Boston.

From   Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpré   by Anika Aldamuy Denise (illustrated by Paola Escobar). Published by HarperCollins 2019.

From Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpré by Anika Aldamuy Denise (illustrated by Paola Escobar). Published by HarperCollins 2019.

225 Strong Against Gun Violence

Sunday was B-PEACE's seventh year of walking to support survivors and calling for an end to gun violence. We are grateful for the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute for all the work they do all year to support those who have lost a loved one to guns and to prevent future incidents of violence. 

Despite rain and chilly conditions, B-PEACE and Episcopalians from DioMass had over 225 leaders walk this year! Some of the Episcopal congregations who were represented include:

Cathedral Church of St. Paul's, Boston

Christ Church/Old North, Boston

Emmanuel Church, Boston

St. Mary's, Dorchester

St. Stephen's, Boston

Trinity Church, Boston (100 people strong!)

St. Paul's, Brookline

St. John the Evangelist, Hingham

Christ Church, Quincy

Parish of the Epiphany, Winchester

St. Elizabeth, Sudbury

St. Peter’s, Beverly

Big shout out to Congregation Dorshei Tzedek, an extremely active Jewish community that is a big supporter of B-PEACE, too! They had over 70 people doing the walk as well! 

To paraphrase Abraham Joshua Heschel, let's keep praying for peace with our legs.

By Liz Steinhauser, Senior Director of Youth Programs


Spring Break Field Trips

From April 16th to April 18th the elementary students of St. Stephen’s Youth Programs joined an all-day program to fill their vacation days. We had loads of fun, and did not want it to end. We started out the week by going downtown to watch the newly released Dumbo movie. On the ride back to St .Augustine and St. Martin’s, I asked my kids what they thought I wanted them to learn and they got it spot on: I wanted them to learn the importance of not just being kind to each other but all other living things. Then the MSPCA came to visit us and provided some great information. They even let us pet one of their guinea pigs. We learned about how to care for animals, how to help them and how to make them a part of our own family. The next day we got a visit from the Farrington Farm and they taught us how to be nice to the earth. We learn about plants’ cycle of life and how many plants talk to each other. We also learned how to plant pea shoots! Later on that evening we were visited by Sarah from the Puppet Showplace Theatre. We loved her stories and she even showed us how she makes her own puppets! On the third and final day of program, we started out the day by going bowling at Townline in Malden, where many kids cheered their peers on and showed their pride in their success knocking pins down. As our last activity of the day, we played indoor games and just enjoyed each other’s company for the last time. You should join us next time for all the fun!

By Cassandra Bernabel, Site Manager at St. Augustine and St. Martin’s


Blackstone parents celebrate the prospect of real walls and doors at their school

Blackstone Elementary School parents and the school community threw a party to celebrate the prospect of walls and doors at their school.

“Without walls and doors in so many classrooms, I worry every day for my son’s safety,” said Blackstone parent Rafaela Polanco. “And not just that, when anyone walks down the hallway every kid in his class turns around to look. It’s so distracting,”

At the March 27 School Committee meeting, Interim Superintendent Laura Perille surprised the many Blackstone parents, teachers, and students in the room when she announced, “We have a pending proposal for $5 million of investment to begin a plan and study of what it would take to put walls and doors into the Blackstone or reconfigure a number of the classrooms.”

The Blackstone community members had marched from their school to the meeting to protest the loss of several key staff members in the 2019-20 budget, which was approved that night. The cuts were not restored, but community members were still happy to hear they may be getting real walls to replace the thin, noisy partitions they have now.

The Blackstone was built in the 1970s as an “open plan” building. But experience has shown that the absence of walls leads to frequent distractions that get in the way of learning.

At the School Committee meeting, fifth grade student Madeline Abel spoke about a different problem. If an intruder were to come into the building, she said, “We can’t hide. …We are sitting ducks.” She said intruder drills terrify the students because they know they couldn’t get away if there were a real threat.

In a letter dated April 10th, school officials wrote to parents: “The proposal for the $5 million capital repairs project that has been submitted by the Boston Public Schools has not yet been approved. It was submitted as a proposal – but only a proposal – on February 21 and is directed at closing off all classroom spaces within the Blackstone… We will know whether our proposal has been approved in late June, when the City of Boston’s capital plan is voted on by the City Council.”

Parent Iris Diaz said the community is looking forward eagerly to hear the plans for their new walls and doors. She hopes communication with BPS officials remains open. “We know that the $5 million for doors and walls for the Blackstone school is a priority, and we thank [the District] for their commitment to our children’s safety.”

By the St. Stephen’s Youth Programs Parent Organizing Team


South End-based B-PEACE for Jorge Campaign Receives State-wide Award

On Thursday, March 28, the B-PEACE for Jorge Campaign received the prestigious Peace MVP Award from the Massachusetts Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence. With the Peace MVP Award, the Mass Coalition recognizes significant and meaningful work by individuals and organizations to stop the scourge of gun violence in Massachusetts. The B-PEACE for Campaign is a project of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts and, while based in the South End, B-PEACE has a state-wide reach. Several other gun violence prevention organizations led by young people, including March for Our Lives-Boston, also received awards.

Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo presented the award to B-PEACE leaders at Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley during the Mass Coalition’s Annual Event. The Peace MVP Award recognizes B-PEACE’s work over the last year, along with fellow award recipient the Pioneer Valley Project in Springfield, to bring attention to the need for gun manufacturers to play an active role in ending gun violence. The global headquarters of Smith and Wesson is based in Springfield and weapons manufactured by Smith and Wesson were used in the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, along with other significant mass shootings in recent years. Smith and Wesson guns are also the most frequently used weapon in crimes in Chicago, one of the few cities that tracks and makes public such information about gun manufacturers.

B-PEACE leader Ekran Sharif proudly received the award and speakers Anthony Pereira-Pomales and Maoly Lara Pena offered words of thanks and urgency. As Lara Pena said in her comments, “I care about gun violence because when I was six years old, I witnessed an accidental shooting. Three people, including my mom and a pregnant woman, were injured with one bullet. It was horrific to see. This had a huge impact on my life then and now...We think that the corporations that make the guns have to be responsible about where the guns are sold and how they are used. We think that Smith and Wesson should be a leader in helping families like mine who are affected by gun violence.”

More than 25 other B-PEACE leaders were part of the 400-person crowd, who applauded and gave the teens a standing ovation. Among those gathered was Mirna Ramos, mother of Jorge Fuentes, a young man who grew up in the community of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church. He was shot and killed at the age of 19 in front of his home in September 2012. The B-PEACE for Jorge Campaign was started in the wake of the grief of this tragedy and strives to honor his memory by addressing the root causes of violence. Following the event, teens presented the actual award to Ms Ramos who wept and hugged the young leaders.

In addition to the award ceremony, the night also included a speech by David Hogg, who graduated last spring from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Hogg has become a national leader on gun violence following the February 2018 shooting at his school, which caused the immediate death of 17 people and which has led more recently to the deaths of two more young people, who died by suicide due, at least in part, to the trauma of the incident. Nikkia Jean-Charles, a B-PEACE leader, participated in a panel with Hogg along with a young leader from the Pioneer Valley Project. They fielded questions from Mass General Hospital physician Dr. Chana Sacks who asked the panelists questions such as why they cared about gun violence, how they took care of themselves in the midst of their activism, and where they saw hope for solutions,

After the event, while taking selfies with Hogg and each other, B-PEACE and Pioneer Valley Project leaders expressed gratitude for the award recognition and a re-commitment to the campaign to engage Smith and Wesson CEO James Debney in productive conversations for solutions to gun violence. To find out more about the B-PEACE for Jorge Campaign’s work or to get involved in their next action, please contact bpeace@ssypboston.org.

By Liz Steinhauser, Senior Director of Youth Programs

Teen leaders from the B-PEACE for Jorge Campaign and the Pioneer Valley Project - Teen Voices United

Teen leaders from the B-PEACE for Jorge Campaign and the Pioneer Valley Project - Teen Voices United

B-PEACE Leader Nikkia Jean Charles  and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School graduate and March For Our Lives leader David Hogg

B-PEACE Leader Nikkia Jean Charles  and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School graduate and March For Our Lives leader David Hogg

(L to R) Mirna Ramos, holding photo of her son Jorge Fuentes, with B-PEACE leaders Ekran Sharif and Nikkia Jean-Charles

(L to R) Mirna Ramos, holding photo of her son Jorge Fuentes, with B-PEACE leaders Ekran Sharif and Nikkia Jean-Charles

College Access and Career Success Starts at St. Stephen's

As part of our commitment to equity in education, St. Stephen's Youth Programs (SSYP) invests in programs that help teenagers imagine their future after high school. And so, on Sunday, February 17, eleven teens and four staff people from SSYP set out on their second annual College & Career February Adventure. This trip, which takes place during the winter break from Boston Public Schools, offers teens experiences to think creatively and expansively about their careers and higher education.  Over six days, teens visited six college campuses, met with professionals from multiple fields, built relationships with each other, and engaged in enrichment activities from Boston to Washington, D.C. 

One goal of SSYP is to ensure that every young person graduates high school. For SSYP seniors the graduation rate is 100%, compared to a graduation rate of 72% in Boston Public Schools. A second goal is for each senior to graduate with a clear and specific post-high school plan.  These plans are personalized and look different for every senior. Some plan to attend two-year community colleges, some a four-year public university, some go to private colleges, and some go on to vocational or job-readiness programs. Mentors and staff from SSYP work with seniors to ensure that plans match the academic interests, financial options, and social and emotional needs for each young person. Trips such as this one during February break help teens learn about and experience the various opportunities pathways that exist following  high school graduation. 

The group started in Western Massachusetts with a visits to Fitchburg State and University of Massachusetts in Amherst. The tours at both campuses were led by SSYP alumni! Lisa and Steve Jenks, two South End residents, graciously hosted the group at their Williamstown house for two nights.  The Jenks also brought the group to their own alma mater, Williams College. The stories shared helped spark the imagination of teens as they planned their own next steps.

The group next traveled to Washington D.C., stopping along the way for chocolate at the Hershey Factory in Pennsylvania. A visit to the Smithsonian Museum of African-American History encouraged teens to think about their past while a networking night at the Obama Foundation helped them think about their future. Teens toured Howard University and Georgetown University, out-of-state colleges that many teens previously never thought of as an option. Staff  at the Central American Resource Center offered another perspective and a night at the Big Apple Circus was pure fun. 

In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, SSYP teens visited Temple University, ate cheese steaks (of course), and ran up the steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art while channeling Rocky Balboa.   As one teen summed up the trip, "It was six days and thousands of miles. I now have a better vision for my future and am excited about my next steps."

SSYP strives to provide every young person with opportunities such as these. Whether it is the fall senior retreat, the College Access and Career Success trip, or the April Service-Learning trip to North Carolina, SSYP helps participants on their paths towards long-term success. If you want to hear more about this program, or want to get involved, please contact Senior Manager of College Access & Success, Jeremy Kazanjian-Amory at Jeremy@ssypboston.org.

By Jeremy Kazanjian-Amory, Senior Manger of College Access and Success


Youth Leaders of B-PEACE for Jorge Rally at Gates of Gun Manufacturer Smith and Wesson

On Friday, March 15, youth organizers from the B-PEACE for Jorge Campaign came together with nearly 100 young people and adults from across Massachusetts to call for solutions to the issue of gun violence. This is at least the fifth time since March 2018 that youth and adults have gathered in Springfield at the global headquarters of gun manufacturer Smith and Wesson. With hand-written signs, speeches, and a hand-delivered letter, youth leaders from the Pioneer Valley Project and the B-PEACE for Jorge Campaign renewed their invitation to Smith and Wesson’s CEO P. James Debney to meet with students.

Across the country, youth and adults have been inspired by the leadership of students from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.  These Florida students became activists and spokespeople on the issue of gun violence after experiencing a mass shooting at their school on February 14, 2018.  Most of the national movement has focused on changing state legislation about guns, with student walkouts marching to state capitols. Here in Massachusetts, which has some of the strongest and most effective state gun laws in the country, students have been walking to and rallying at the gates of Smith and Wesson, one of the largest gun manufacturers in the United States.

The B-PEACE for Jorge Campaign is based out of the Church of St. Augustine and St. Martin on Lenox Street and is a program of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts designed to address the underlying root causes of violence. Teens from the South End and other neighborhoods of Boston, who are leaders in the B-PEACE for Jorge Campaign, are asking Smith and Wesson’s CEO Debney to be a corporate leader in developing solutions for the epidemic of gun violence in city neighborhoods and schools across the country. Youth believe that creative steps would emerge from conversation and might include such measures as a moratorium on sales of semi-automatic weapons, such as the AR-15 assault rifle. A rifle of this sort, manufactured by Smith and Wesson, was the gun used in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre.

As B-PEACE teen leader Nikkia Jean-Charles said, “This is not how the world has to be or should be. We and so many others are coming together to re-imagine what might be possible between the people who make the guns and the people who suffer from the guns. We think we can find a better way forward.”  Other teen leaders agreed. “We’re not here to shut down Smith and Wesson. We’re here because gun violence is a real crisis in this country. We’re here because we want to sit down with CEO Debney and talk about how we can work together to end gun violence. We have some good ideas and we think he does too,” said Maana Daud, a 12-grader in Springfield and a leader with Pioneer Valley Project’s Youth Voices United.

So far, executives from Smith and Wesson have refused to speak with teens. In addition, American Outdoor Brands, the parent company of Smith and Wesson, published.a report for shareholders in February 2019. “The conversation around firearm-related violence in the United States is largely an unbranded conversation,” the report said, in part. “The Company’s reputation as a strong defender of the Second Amendment is not worth risking for a vague goal of improving the Company’s reputation among non-customers or special interest groups with an anti-Second Amendment agenda.”

Still, teens believe that Smith and Wesson has a responsibility to be a corporate leader in finding solutions to gun violence. In addition to the Parkland shooting, Smith and Wesson is the brand of guns used in the mass shooting in a warehouse in Aurora, Illinois and the fully loaded pistol brought by a four-year-old to his preschool in Mount Gilead, North Carolina, among other examples. It is also the brand of weapon used most often in gun violence in Chicago, which tracks the manufacturers of weapons used in crimes.

On Friday, security guards from Smith and Wesson refused to accept the invitation letter from youth leaders, saying they would call the police unless teens immediately got off the property of the gun manufacturer. Teens were undeterred and promised to be back.

To find out more about the B-PEACE for Jorge Campaign, contact them at bpeace@ssypboston.org or follow them on Twitter @bpeaceforjorge.

Story and photos by Liz Steinhauser, Senior Director of Youth Programs

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BIG Thanks for BIG Books from BIG-Hearted Book-Lovers of Grace Episcopal Church, Newton

SSYP partners with the Blackstone School in many ways, including coordinating the school library. This would not be possible without the network of partners who contribute time, energy, funds, and books to the student readers. In January, Rowan Pantalena, Minister for Christian Formation at Grace Episcopal Church in Newton, led an Advent book drive for the Blackstone Library. 

On a mid-January Tuesday, on behalf of Grace and their rector, The Rev. Regina Walton, Rowan delivered a huge crate of books collected for the Blackstone Library along with more than $100 in Barnes and Noble gift cards. Big thanks to Rowan, Regina, and the congregants of Grace Episcopal Church. Check out the excited readers! 

By Tricia Harvey, Library Coordinator


Trailblazers with St. Stephen's Youth Programs and The Validation Project

On December 18th, a group of 10 young women went on a College & Career field trip to Education First and Harvard Graduate School of Education in a collaboration with St. Stephen's Youth Programs and The Validation Project. 

The field trip started off with a tour of Education First led by female employees and a mock focus group workshop surrounding what the teens are hoping to do in the future. The teens learned about how focus groups serve researchers. 

After the focus group Education First threw a pizza party for the teens where they voiced their fears and excitement for the future.

After our networking dinner we headed over to Harvard for a panel with current students about their educational and professional paths. Thank you to The Validation Project for helping us create a space to empower young women!

By Emily DeMazza, Ambassador of Mentoring


Blackstone School and St. Stephen’s Build Warm Relationships Despite Frigid Cold

On Monday, January 21, more than 130 people from over 20 community organizations ignored the arctic temperatures, donned winter boots, and made their way over to the Blackstone School for the annual MLK Day of Action. This is the ninth year that St. Stephen’s Youth Programs (SSYP) has organized the day of support for the school, along with key partners City Year, Friends of the Blackstone, Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), several Episcopal churches, and the B-PEACE for Jorge Campaign.

The MLK Day of Action strives to advance the vision of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by combining work projects that improve the learning environment of the school with leadership workshops about issues of justice. This year, volunteers created scores of posters and window murals to inspire students, cleared out space for more effective occupational and physical therapy sessions, improved shelving and storage in the school library, assembled care packages for students to be distributed before April’s MCAS tests, organized the parent center and compassion closet for families, and added beauty and affirmations to the teacher lounge.  Additional projects took place in SSYP’s afterschool space at 419 Shawmut Avenue, including a re-organization of the library there.

The leadership workshop began with motivational words from the South End’s new State Representative Jon Santiago and City Councillor Ed Flynn. Both politicians talked about their commitment to public education. SSYP Staff Organizers Ariel Branz, Rafaela Polanco, and Bar Kolodny taught about the process that Boston Public Schools uses to distribute money to schools and the impossible choices that school administrators must often make. Using popular education techniques, games and team competition, pie charts and rock-paper-scissors, the trainers helped participants understand the complicated system of funding and expenses that schools like the Blackstone face. As one elementary student said at the end of the workshop, “It was really fun. The training was good for six-year olds and sixty-year olds!”

As the training outlined, due to changes in status and formulas, the Blackstone School is facing a budget gap for the school year 2019-2020 and is eliminate $500,000 of staff and services from its already thin budget. This will likely result in the elimination of at least ten staff positions, including the family coordinator, school counselor, inclusion strand coordinators, classroom teachers, and other key roles that help to meet the educational requirements of Blackstone’s most high-need students.  

Blackstone teachers and parents, community partners, and MLK Day volunteers refuse to accept choosing between meeting the needs of English Language Learners and Special Education students. Instead, leaders are working together to solve this educational emergency by pushing for the necessary, full-funding for the school.  Participants in the leadership workshop made over 100 on-the-spot calls to Boston decision-makers in City Hall and the Boston Public Schools. Many of these leaders will be turning out again, this time wearing their dark-blue Blackstone “Ubuntu” t-shirts for the Wednesday, January 30 School Committee meeting at 6:00pm at the Bolling Building. State Rep. Santiago and City Councillor Flynn pledged their support for this effort and will be at the School Committee Meeting, too.

Leaders from SSYP and the Blackstone School invite community members to support the Blackstone as their neighborhood school. To find out more about Blackstone’s budget crisis, support teachers and families, or to volunteer in Blackstone classrooms and library, contact Liz Steinhauser at liz@ssypboston.org.

By Liz Steinhauser, Senior Director of Youth Programs

(L-R) Blackstone Principal Jamel Adkins-Sharif, SSYP Parent Organizer Rafaela Polanco, City Councilor Ed Flynn, State Rep. Jon Santiago

(L-R) Blackstone Principal Jamel Adkins-Sharif, SSYP Parent Organizer Rafaela Polanco, City Councilor Ed Flynn, State Rep. Jon Santiago

Volunteers from Congregation Dorshei Tzedek bring beauty to the Blackstone School. 

Volunteers from Congregation Dorshei Tzedek bring beauty to the Blackstone School. 

Volunteers improve shelving in Blackstone Library

Volunteers improve shelving in Blackstone Library

Inspirational words were  posted around the school. 

Inspirational words were  posted around the school. 

Words to live by at the Blackstone School! 

Words to live by at the Blackstone School! 

SSYP Staff and Mass Promise Fellow Latasha Scott with young volunteers

SSYP Staff and Mass Promise Fellow Latasha Scott with young volunteers

Giving Back

On January 4th at St. Augustine and St. Martin, the youth participated in what we like to call “a day of service.” We decided that we wanted to continue to give back and thought it would be best to do so with an organization that has agreed to work and partner with us. During the April vacation this year, we will be visited by the MSPCA Adoption Center, an animal shelter located in Jamaica Plain. During that time we will learn more about what the MSPCA does to help homeless animals and what we can do to help those animals, too. The MSCPA, along explaining the depths of their organization, will bring a couple of animals for the youth and staff to get to know and hang out with! We decided that we should thank the organization by donating some items that will help them in their everyday tasks. The youth made homemade dog treats with oatmeal, peanut butter and pumpkin puree. YUM! They also designed hand towels that the MSPCA will be able to use to clean the facility, and they wrote lovely notes to all the homeless animals. I hope that you enjoy the pictures attached of the youth during these several activities. #AdoptDontShop

By Cassandra Bernabel, Site Manager at St. Augustine and St. Martin


Groups stage City Hall Christmas event asking wealthy Boston nonprofits to pay their share of municipal costs

With petitions, songs, costumes, and a brass band, students and other demonstrators from the PILOT Action Group staged a performance today in Boston City Hall, dramatizing their campaign to get wealthy nonprofits to contribute their fair share for city services.

Young people from Boston Public Schools, their parents, and members of other PILOT Action Group organizations sang modified lyrics to popular Christmas carols and delivered petitions with more than 1,000 signatures asking Mayor Marty Walsh and the City Council to press wealthy nonprofits to make their full payments due under the city’s Payments In Lieu Of Taxes (PILOT) program. The hallways rang with the music of local brass musicians and chants of “Jingle bells, jingle bells, PILOT’s on the way, Oh what joy it is to go to fully-funded schools-hey!”

“Every day I read from textbooks older than I am, and I pray that there’s soap in the bathrooms, even though there never is,” said Fiona McManus, an 11th grader in Boston Public Schools, underscoring the need for fully-funded schools.

“Universities like Northeastern are growing and expanding into the neighborhoods’ rental market with students outcompeting with lifelong residents,” said Cortina Vann, an organizer with the Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance (MAHA). “We have a racial homeownership gap that is unacceptable. PILOT is a way for major nonprofit institutions to give back and address the housing crisis that they as institutions are helping to feed.”

City Councilors Annissa Essaibi-George, Lydia Edwards, Ed Flynn, and Michelle Wu addressed the crowd. "Boston is home to fantastic educational institutions, world-renowned hospitals, and distinguished cultural centers that help make our city great and attractive. However, these institutions own a lot of property in Boston, property that has not been reassessed since 2007," said Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George. "It is important that these nonprofit institutions pay their fair share of taxes to offset the burden on Boston taxpayers."

Nonprofit organizations are exempt by state law from paying property taxes, even though they receive city services paid for by the taxes of others.

In 2010, a city taskforce that included nonprofit representatives was convened by then Mayor Menino to come up with a way for nonprofits to shoulder a share of Boston’s municipal expenses. The taskforce agreed that wealthy nonprofits—those owning over $15 million of Boston real estate—should pay one quarter of what they would owe if they were not exempt. Half of that quarter can be in kind services to the city and its residents, or community benefits. These payments are called Payments In Lieu Of Taxes or PILOT. Payments began in 2012.

Many large institutions have complied with the program but some of the wealthiest, especially some of the universities—Boston College, Harvard University, and Northeastern University—are falling farther and farther behind in their payments. Boston University increased its contribution from last year.  

In 2018, only 64 percent of the requested PILOT cash payments were collected, down from 90 percent in 2012. Altogether, wealthy nonprofits are more than $77 million in arrears since 2012. Most of that—$46.7 million—is due from the “Big 4” universities.  

The PILOT Action Group is a growing coalition of more than 20 community, faith, student and labor groups working to increase compliance with the city’s PILOT program by appealing directly to the wealthiest non-compliers and by asking the city government to hold nonprofits accountable for their missing payments.

The organizations have issued a comprehensive report on the PILOT program and its shortcomings, packed a City Council hearing in August, and recently wrote letters to Mayor Marty Walsh and major university presidents seeking to meet with them about PILOT underpayments.

“Today’s action is a light-hearted part of our campaign but this is a very serious matter for the residents of Boston,” said Enid Eckstein of the PILOT Action Group.  “These institutions benefit tremendously from being located in an exciting city. They should pay their fair share of the costs. We will continue to expand our campaign until they do.”

The demonstration ended in the lobby of the Mayor’s office, where students and parents in full costume dramatized the Grinch story. Seven-year-old Amy Polanco, dressed as Cindy Lou, insisted, “All I want for Christmas is for you to pay your PILOT Payments!” In the end, the green-faced Grinch covered in university logos handed “Mayor Santa Claus Walsh” a check for the $77 million dollar arrears, and the band burst into song.

For more on the PILOT Action Group, visit https://pilotaction.weebly.com.

By the PILOT Action Group Organizing Members

City Councilor Lydia Edwards addresses the audience.

City Councilor Lydia Edwards addresses the audience.

Delivering a check for the $77 million in unpaid PILOTs from “Grinchy Universities” to the City of Boston.

Delivering a check for the $77 million in unpaid PILOTs from “Grinchy Universities” to the City of Boston.

Cindy Lou tells the Grinch, “All I want for Christmas is for you to pay your PILOT Payments!”

Cindy Lou tells the Grinch, “All I want for Christmas is for you to pay your PILOT Payments!”

Service is Sweet!

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others”

    ~ Mahatma Gandhi

As we work to support youth in becoming healthy, successful individuals and strong leaders, we must remember the importance and value of service. In the JCIT (Junior Counselor In Training) program, there is a constant focus on personal development and leadership development among the 9th graders who make up our team. Lately, the JCITs have been hard at work planning and implementing a service project to give back to local children this holiday season.  

In late November, we had great brainstorming session where the JCITs pitched a variety of fundraising ideas. Eventually, the group voted on making deep-fried oreos and brownies to sell, and use the money to buy gifts for local children whose families need support this holiday season. The next week we made lists of exactly what materials we would need and calculated the cost. The JCITs were very focused on both cost and quality, noting bargains on certain items, but insisting we get Ghirardelli brownie mix because it is the best!  We also decided to sell dog treats since we would be setting up shop at the park across the street, where many people take their dogs. After materials were purchased, we devoted a whole day of programming to baking, frying, and crafting. The finished product was beautiful: bags of sugar-dusted fried oreos, fudgy brownies, and homemade dog biscuits, all tied with ribbons and a festive gift tag containing a picture of the JCIT crew and the list of ingredients we used.

The day after making our products, we sold them at the park, talking to lots of community members, and petting lots of dogs. After standing hours in the cold, and pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones, we raised a total of $295!!! Last Thursday, we took our money over to Target and picked out gifts for the kids whose wishlists we had been given.

The JCITs really took ownership of this project, and let their leadership skills shine. We all got to grow our skills in business, fundraising, baking, crafting, communication, advertising, customer service, and shopping on a budget! I was impressed with the devotion many of them showed to the project, and know that there are more service projects in our future!

By Jennie Bruno, JCIT coordinator


Church - School Partnership Builds a Library that Inspires a Love of Reading

St. Stephen’s Youth Programs (SSYP) and the Blackstone Elementary School kicked off their ninth year of a formal partnership and readers of all ages celebrated their love of books. One of the signature projects of SSYP is the school library, which was without one for almost a decade before the partnership. The Blackstone Library is open to students and teachers five days a week. With close to 12,000 well-organized volumes on the shelves, an online database of these books, regular author visits, a subscription to the search engine EBSCO, and a cheery, well-lit space, the Blackstone is one of the premier elementary school libraries in Boston Public Schools. This is all thanks to a team of dedicated volunteers and resources raised outside of the school’s regular budget.

Library volunteers, who are neighborhood residents and members of suburban Episcopal churches,  welcome two-thirds of the school’s classrooms (23 of 35) for weekly visits to the library for read-alouds and book-borrowing. Adults work hard to get to know each young person in grades K0 to 5, helping students find the “just-right” book to read independently.

In October, young readers at the school met Newbery Honor-winning author Adam Gidwitz.  This and other author visits to the Blackstone School have been made possible because of SSYP’s partnership with Wondermore, Inc., a Boston-based non-profit agency that seeks to “cultivate children’s curiosity, creativity, and academic achievement by igniting a love of good books.” During his time at the school, Gidwitz presented his new series, The Unicorn Rescue Society, and shared insights into the writing process with an enthusiastic audience of third graders.  Thanks to the generosity of Wondermore and Gidwitz, each student took home a copy of the first book in the series.  Wondermore also provided copies of the next two books in the series to all the third-grade classrooms and to the Blackstone Library, where they are proving to be popular checkout choices!

In November Blackstone Library volunteers led activities at the Blackstone’s Family Literacy Night, an annual event that encourages a spirit of literacy at school and at home.  More than forty students visited library, bringing their friends and family members, to make bookmarks, pick up some reading-related swag, and read stories to the library’s mascot, Clifford the Big Red Dog.

The library program relies on volunteers who keep their focus on supporting classroom teachers and enriching the reading experience for students.  If you are interested in learning more about volunteer opportunities in the library, please email the Blackstone-SSYP’s Library Coordinator, Tricia Harvey (tricia@ssypboston.org) to arrange a visit or join the next orientation session.

Support for the Blackstone Library can also come through donations. During this festive season, please consider donating a book from the Blackstone-SSYP Wish List, found online at Porter Square Books: www.portersquarebooks.com/wishlist/280

Be sure to mention in the Order Comments section that you are ordering for Blackstone Library to receive a 10% discount. Choose "In-store Pick-up" as the delivery option and Blackstone Volunteers will take it from there.

By Tricia Harvey, Library Coordinator

Literacy Night activities for students and families

Literacy Night activities for students and families

Library volunteer Jen Cusack of Needham gets ready to welcome young readers on Literacy Night

Library volunteer Jen Cusack of Needham gets ready to welcome young readers on Literacy Night

Author Adam Gidwitz Visits the Blackstone

Author Adam Gidwitz Visits the Blackstone

Blackstone Library display of Gidwitz books

Blackstone Library display of Gidwitz books

Parent Snack!

If you are familiar with our program, you may know that the well-being of all of our youth is always our main priority. Every day, apart from helping 130 kids with homework and other enrichment activities, we also provide our youth with a meal. The meals we provide our kids are warm when appropriate and hearty which allows for our youth to make it through the afternoon with full bellies. For some years now we have tried our best to include our families in this part of our afternoon by asking that they help us provide snack.

This year we put a little more effort into reaching out to our families for help and we have had such a great turn out so far! Every Thursday we have been so lucky as to have 2 to 3 families help us provide snacks for our kids! It has turned into a day the kids look forward to as they eat the food that their families prepare and we thank the kids whose parents cooked for us. 

By Sandy Quispe, Site Manager at St. Stephen’s

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Running with Sole Train

The YLC middle school program had its first race on October 20th, “THE JP FUN RUN,” and the youth did a great job completing the 5K. The youth enjoyed all the support during the race: they got to see some of their middle school teachers who are involved in Sole Train, Megan, who was their Site Coordinator for St. Stephen’s last year, and even some outside friends. One youth name Fanleys and his running old sole Kyshawn completed the race in 33 mins. Another youth Dana and her old sole Maggie completed in 43 mins. The race was provided by a community-building and mentoring program that uses running as a vehicle for setting and achieving seemingly impossible goals. As a supportive community of caring adults and peers, Sole Train champions young people as they realize their capacity for greatness. Come cheer us on at our next big race in May of 2019 “ The Run to Remember”. Or every Tuesday and Thursday as we run in the South End for practice.

By Latasha Scott, YLC Program Coordinator and Mass Promise Fellow


Learning Through Play

Anyone who knows me well knows that math and I have never gotten along. I was able to keep up enough to pass but I never felt like I got it. Fractions were particularly difficult for me so I can empathize with our students who struggle to grasp certain concepts or subjects in school. It is easy to fall behind and harder and harder to catch up. While my parents and teachers did the groundwork to help me understand the general concept of fractions, it didn’t fully click until I looked at it in a different context...music.

I could read and understand music--that made sense to me. It was when I stopped thinking about the fractions as math I realized that I did understand them and had, in fact, been using fractions this whole time when subdividing musical measures and melodies. The skills were there but something about the formal classroom setting caused a disconnect. The only way for me to reconnect with these skills was to practice them in an area I felt skilled at and that I found enjoyable.

This is the basis of my theory on learning through play. Standard classroom learning can be an intimidating and sometimes cold environment. The last thing I want when facilitating a lesson is to have youth stressed or disengaged. I’ve noticed that our youth tend to loosen up when you take out the classroom feel and incorporate more abstract activities, competitions, and games.

This theory also is the reason that we introduced Skillz Lab this year. Skillz Lab offers a variety of activities for youth to engage in but the catch is that each activity is stimulating some area of their brain. For example, when you challenge a child to build the tallest lego tower, their mind is learning about engineering and architecture. In a Play-Doh version of a “Cake Boss” bake-off, a child’s sculpture is really just practicing concepts in fine art, color theory, and geometry. A simple activity surrounding planting seeds has youth inadvertently learning about living organisms and the science of botany. “Fill in the Caption” comic books are really just storytelling, dialogue, and writing in disguise.

Skillz Lab in particular is embodying our B-READY 2018-19 theme “Change Can’t Wait” by trying something radical with the hopes of a positive outcome. Within an afterschool setting, we are fighting an uphill battle by offering classroom structure after a child has already had a 6+ hour school day. In my opinion, it does us no good to pretend to be what we are not--in this case, teachers. This is especially true when you consider that learning is constant and limitless and that humans learn a variety of ways. The formal classroom setting has already been provided by each of their schools. What we can provide is the supplemental practice and real-life application of those learnings. What we can provide is play.

By Vicky Ajene, Manager of Academic and Enrichment Programs.