Ahead of Boston's mayoral election, we're visiting the city's neighborhoods to find out what challenges they face and what voters there want in a new mayor.
This week, WBUR's All Things Considered host Sacha Pfeiffer toured the Mattahunt Wheelock Community Center in Mattapan with Rashad Cope, its 31-year-old director.
Cope lives in Mattapan and his job at the center, which is tucked away in a residential neighborhood about a mile from Mattapan Square, is close to his heart because he says a community center in Roxbury played a major role in his childhood.
"I was surrounded by caring adults," Cope recalls. "I was surrounded by people who wanted to see us succeed."
Due to budget cuts, the city of Boston closed Mattapan's Mattahunt Community Center in 2010. But then Wheelock College stepped in, agreeing to run the center for at least four years and develop new programs there before the city resumes operating it.
Cope, who has an MBA and is now working on a master's degree in educational studies, acknowledges some struggles in that effort, including "challenges with access to this community center." The problem, he explains, is that it's "not easily accessible for parents or children to get here via public transportation." Still, he hopes Boston's next mayor will consider the center an important resource in helping the children of Mattapan succeed.
Rashad Cope: We know Mattapan has a large population of youth. We know mentoring programs are very important to keep young people on track. We know that family support programs are very important for families to keep their young people on track.
Sacha Pfeiffer: What kind of family support programs?
Whether we're talking about allowing families to come in and have literacy nights, sports-based opportunities, computer literacy programming. This community has been one of the more underserved communities for a number of years.
And in that sense, what this community center does is critical, right? Because the whole issue of youth violence and urban violence and what's the root of it — a lot of it has to do with what happens here, when you get to kids. Hopefully you get to kids when they're young and put them on the right path.
Yes, a lot of it starts within the area that is close to home. We expect for the new mayor to have a focus on youth development, family engagement and, most importantly, to have a strong focus on education.
What's happening at this center right now, after school every day, that you think is important, that you hope to grow, and that you hope lasts with the next administration?
We have a focus on after-school partnerships — extended day programs that provide homework assistance, sports-based development through gym. We have a new focus this year on drama programs, college and career readiness programming.
Rashad, a little bit ago when we were talking to you, a bunch of kids came downstairs. I think they streamed over from the school, connected by a bridge.
And they went into this gym?
Yes, they went into the gym area here. We can walk in here and take a look at the physical education class that's going on right now. You have these smiling faces that are just so eager to know what's going on, who we are here.
Really fascinated by the microphones.
Yes, very. Very.
I think we're about to be a big gym class distraction! These kids go to the school attached to the community center?
Yes, they attend the Mattahunt Elementary School next door.
And that's a Level 4 turnaround school — basically meaning a school that is hurting and it's trying to improve?
Yes. What that means is that the district is required to put in a new set of policies, a new focus to help turn around the academic performance of the school.
What's your hope for how the next mayor will play a role in that?
I would hope that the next mayor puts a strong emphasis on increasing tutoring programs. There needs to be an increase in teacher development.
Another thing noteworthy about the Mattapan school landscape is that there's no high school. So what does that mean for the kids who live in Mattapan?
What that means is those ninth-through-12th graders, they would now have to take public transportation, which in some cases is about an hour-and-a-half or so, to reach some of their other schools that they attend. By the time they get back here to their community, it's pretty late.
Literally late in the day? They're getting home late in the afternoon, early evening?
They're getting home at least about 5 p.m., sometimes 6 p.m.
Is that a struggle to make them then want to come to the community center after having commuted home from their far-away high school?
What that means is we have to be very creative around what type of opportunities we are offering here at the community center that would grab that population and want them to attend this community center.
Do you feel like you've found a way to do that?
We're working on that.
How hopeful or not hopeful do you feel right now about the future of a lot of these young Mattapan kids we've seen here in the gym today?
I feel hopeful for these children because this community here is filled with such caring people. There needs to be a stronger focus on opportunities for these young people. I would like to think that every school would benefit from a deep collaboration with a community organization and a deep collaboration with a business association, as well.
If you had that kind of partnership, when a kid walked in the school system in kindergarten or so forth, what would happen? Who would then hold that kid's hand?
So if a parent was to walk into the school, you're walking into a partnership with a large nonprofit organization that's working to end poverty. You're walking into a school with a health facility that's looking to address some of the health concerns. You're walking into a facility that can help you, as a parent, whether you're struggling financially, whether you're struggling with raising your family. If we develop a partnership approach that meets the needs of the parents, that then will help meet the needs of the children, then everyone is holding the hand of a young person — not just a teacher, not just a principal, but everyone is holding their hand.
This program aired on October 30, 2013.