Dorchester Youth Collaborative shutdown a tough blow
After 40 years, haven for young people closes its doors
THE NEWS HIT George Huynh hard, and for good reason.
Starting when he was nine, Huynh often spent more waking hours at the Dorchester Youth Collaborative than he did at home. The youth program in Boston’s Fields Corner neighborhood wasn’t just a favorite place for him and his older brother to hang out. It was a lifeline.
“It really was my home for a long time, a time when it was very hard growing up in Dorchester down the street,” said Huynh, who is now 24. “And we felt safe, loved, and we were just comfortable being there.”
But after 40 years as a safe refuge from troubled streets and homes for thousands of young people in Dorchester, the program closed its doors last weekend.
“It’s not easy. The kids are very upset,” said Emmett Folgert, who co-founded the center in 1981 — and never left.
He said the youth collaborative was a victim of uncertainty surrounding the pandemic. An icon of the city’s network of unsung heroes who work with its most vulnerable young people, Folgert said the agency was not broke — he thinks there will be about $100,000 left after all the accounts are settled. And he said the vote by the DYC board to shut down was not due to any personnel or health issues. (Folgert says he’s cancer-free after contending with prostate and colon cancer in recent years.)
But since the pandemic’s onset nearly a year ago, the agency has largely been unable to deliver the direct services to young people that were its foundation. Its youth center, a second-floor walkup in the heart of the Fields Corner business district, has been shuttered. And a workforce jobs program it ran for an older cohort of 16 to 23 year olds, which had a contract with Catholic Charities of Boston to do maintenance work on archdiocese-owned buildings and was still operating in the early months of the pandemic, was eventually forced to shut down as well.
Folgert says the pandemic was complicating the ability to fundraise for the coming year. “How do I ask funders for money for programs I don’t know if I’m going to be able to run?” he said.
Still, he thought there was a way forward. The agency’s board of directors, however, decided otherwise.
The board’s chairman, Steve Weymouth, called the decision “hard and heartbreaking.” He said Folgert’s work with young people has been extraordinary, but suggested there was concern about the agency’s operations and how it would sustain itself into the future. Though he hadn’t signaled any imminent plans to retire, Folgert is 70.
To the extent that is true, it’s a shortcoming that also captures what made the youth center such a powerful and enduring presence: The streetwise genius that Folgert brought to the agency’s work with young people.
An upstate New York native who landed here to attend Boston College during the tumult of the late 1960s, Folgert’s insight has been honed by decades spent reeling young people back in from the lure of gangs and keeping others who might be at risk from heading down that path.
DYC’s small staff directed programming geared toward the arts and music, a basketball league, and workforce development programs. But tying it all together was Folgert’s hands-on presence and keen understanding of young people, especially those facing lots of hurdles.
He improvised ways to win their trust — and keep the peace in the midst of violence-prone neighborhoods — that aren’t necessarily easy to replicate or enshrine in a playbook. One signature practice was maintaining a fistful of dollar bills in his pocket, from which he’d peel off one or two to give kids to go get a hamburger at the McDonald’s across the street. It was a small gesture that could go a long way toward reinforcing the feeling that the center’s staff cared.
“He had a unique way of working with young people by doing simple things,” said Larry Mayes, the vice president for programming at Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Boston, who first met Folgert more than 20 years ago while doing street outreach work in Dorchester. Sometimes Folgert would send a young person to buy burgers for everyone at the center. “He was building responsibility, he was building trust — showing that we’re all in this together,” says Mayes. “Emmett is a quietly charismatic individual, and so much of DYC is him.”
While the pandemic largely sidelined the work of the center’s staff of eight full- and part-time employees, Folgert and others did their best to stay connected with kids who had come to rely on spending after-school hours at DYC. He reached out via text or FaceTime to young people like 13-year-old Janilson Lopes, a middle school student who lives off Bowdoin Street in a three-decker apartment with his parents, two siblings, and his grandmother.
“We’re figuring it out as we’re going along here,” Folgert said in April during the early days of the pandemic.
With Lopes and others, that meant Folgert stayed in touch with their teachers to see if they were logging on for remote instruction. Folgert would swing by the homes of those who were keeping up with virtual classes and drop off video game cards as rewards.
“After trying to get kids off video games for years, now we’re trying to get them back on,” Folgert said at the time, laughing at the irony of the situation.
Another example of his outside-the-box thinking: While many youth programs assign young people to a staff person who serves as their mentor, Folgert’s acquired insight led him to a different approach.
“We wait around and see who they choose to talk to,” he said last spring. “So he’s one of mine,” Folgert said, explaining how he came to be the agency staff member working with Lopes. “You can assign a kid a supervisor, but you can’t assign them a mentor.”
George and Johnny Huynh are two of the many young people who chose Folgert over the years. The brothers are sons of Vietnamese immigrants who grew up a stone’s throw from the Dorchester youth center. They faced more trauma and hardship while still in early adolescence than most people will face in a lifetime.
Their father, a troubled veteran of the South Vietnamese army who spent years in a communist “reeducation” camp after the war, committed suicide by jumping from the Tobin Bridge. Their mother suffered from mental health issues that gave her little capacity to parent the boys, who were practically raising themselves.
When they found their way to DYC, Folgert quickly became the one stable adult figure in their lives. For a lot of kids, said George Huynh, “DYC just feels like home. It really was my home for a long time.”
At home, George and his brother were largely on their own to get up every day, feed themselves, and get out the door to school. But Folgert became an unwavering presence, and the quiet force behind their remarkable success story. The brothers both made it through Boston Latin School, and George went on to graduate from Yale, while Johnny graduated from UMass Amherst.
“Because of my dad and the turmoil happening at home, I spent so much time at DYC just figuring out my identity. I was this small Vietnamese kid. I just remember early on how observant Emmett was. So slowly but surely we opened up to him,” Huynh said of Folgert’s impact on him and his brother.
“It’s something you can’t measure,” said Huynh. “But he has been one of the most important things in our life.”
Though the youth center is no more, Folgert said he’s not ready to call it quits. He has heard from scores of people who relied on DYC in their youth who were upset at the news, and he is exploring ways he and the DYC staff might be able to continue to provide programming to young people under the umbrella of another Boston nonprofit.
Since the news broke a week ago of DYC’s closing, Folgert has been telling the young people who have looked to the agency as an important anchor that things will change, but he’ll still be there for them. “I said, look, we’re going to continue to have some kind of relationship, and as long as we have some kind of relationship, we’ll make sure you have places to go and some kind of supports.”“There is so much work to be done serving youth and keeping that positive outlook,” Huynh said. “Whether it’s physically in that same space or not, Emmett will still be around, and DYC’s spirit will still be around.”
“I’m not retiring. I’m a young 70,” Folgert said. “I actually started jogging again. I’m certain I’m the slowest jogger on Carson Beach. But the only thing worse than jogging at 70 is not jogging.”