By Miranda Aufiero, Anthony Begins, Joseph Everett and Tim Shaffer
“Anger.” This is the one word Hilda Ramirez uses to describe the overall demeanor and attitude of young people before they arrive at the Worcester Youth Center.
Ramirez, executive director of the center, is in a daily fight to keep the youth of Worcester off the streets and on a non-violent path. And she’s fighting a rising tide. The crime rate in the city is on the increase and Ramirez believes the youth are the key to curing the evils of the streets.
“Youth are honest, they tell you why things like this are happening, we just need to listen,” says Ramirez.
Despite the efforts of police, the crime rate in the city has been growing slightly year over year – mirroring a growth in other cities in the state. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigations yearly reports on crime, there were 1,390 violent crimes within city limits in 2005. In 2009, that number rose to 1,790, with population remaining about the same. Included in those figures are the number of documented aggravated assault crimes, which have risen by 492 cases since 2005. The burglary rate has increased by 16 percent. Larceny and theft have risen by a total of 849 cases per year since 2005.
Ramirez believes that the work being done at the center will help mitigate these numbers. It’s a problem rooted in poverty and poor home environments that points youths toward the street.
“The younger kids that drop out of school are often recruited by gang members,” says Ramirez. “And a lot of them accept because they have nothing else to do with their time.”
Ramirez says the young people do not attend school for a number of reasons. Whether it is expulsion for reasons ranging from fighting to bringing in weapons to school, or merely because they have absentee parents, all of these dropouts will most likely be affected by the violence on the streets. Ramirez made a point to say that these youths have no positive role models, and many are in custody of the juvenile court system, foster system or live in single-parent homes.
“And once they start committing crimes, it can become a way of life,” she added.
Center to the philosophy of the Worcester Youth Center is the idea that the best tool for preventing these young people from falling into this life of crime is prevention.
The mission statement of the Center reads “to provide a place where young people can build lasting, positive changes in their lives.” This goal is accomplished by Ramirez and her team through scheduling and leading the youths down a more virtuous path.
“Youth need a lot of structure,” Ramirez said, “and when they don’t have that, they get into these bad situations.”
Each teen that comes into the Youth Center must enter into an agreement with both the staff at the center, as well as the youths’ fellow peers. One of these guidelines include exhibition of neutral clothing, that is, clothing that does not promote drugs, violence or gang affiliation. Those individuals who are involved in a fight, instigate a conflict or escalate a conflict are subject to suspension from the grounds. These guidelines, among many others, help to teach these young people how conflicts can be resolved and avoided, and give them the realization that if they break the rules, there will be consequences. At the end of a written agreement youths sign, there is a statement that reads: “We want to avoid a feeling that there are ‘rules’ being imposed and enforced strictly by adult staff. We want staff to realize that they can guide youth but not command them.” The statement is designed to empower young people, showing them that they govern themselves, and therefore are responsible for their own actions. Those who break the rules are always invited to come back to the center, pending their pledge not to repeat those actions.
“We don’t kick them out – we try to negotiate and help them with these issues,” said Ramirez. “Kicking them out would just put them back in the community … it wouldn’t solve anything.”
In addition to providing services such as GED classes to young adults, the Worcester Youth Center has a close relationship with the Ex-Prisoners’ and Prisoners’ Organizing for Community Advancement, an organization that helps in rehabilitating those youths who have been involved in criminal activity. The center also gives special attention to those youths who have been arrested and released from prison for gang membership. Working in concert with the Worcester Police gang unit and juvenile department, the center hopes the young adults can learn their lessons and be contributing members of society.
Although the recent crime rates don’t prove it, staff at the Youth Center believe they are making a difference. On its website, the center published a story of a young man named Barend Woode. Woode, a troubled teen who became heavily involved in the Worcester Youth Center. After three years of being involved with programs such as Lifetime to Success, run by the Worcester Police Department, and as a peer counselor, Woode enrolled at Becker College in 2009.
“The Worcester Youth Center has helped me grow not only in education, but as a person by preparing me for life’s challenges,” said Woode.
This is the Center’s best case scenario, a troubled youth taken off the streets, and put onto the fast track for success.
“You can’t make a decision for them, but you can walk them through it and help guide them to the right choice,” said Ramirez.
She believes the Center has all the tools the teens need to become a success in life.
“It is up to them whether or not they utilize them,” she said. She believes that by giving these young people the guidance they lack, Worcester can be a safer place.