By Andrea Patiño
As the winter slowly advances, the days seem to be getting colder and colder. Every day however, the sun is setting a little bit later and there is one more minute of light each afternoon. In spite of the cold, the Boston skies continue to be some of the most stunning I’ve ever seen. The light peaks in beautiful ways through the snowy branches and the sunsets are always astounding.
On a cold day like this, I met Jonathan Rodriguez, a now 21 year old who works at a sheet metal factory. He is a native of Lynn and was once part of the programs at Raw Art Works, the non-profit I have been working with for the past months. At his young age Jonathan is the father of two, not uncommon in Lynn, which has some of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the state.
A few years ago, when he was in his last years of high school, Jonathan became part of the RAW Chiefs group, an initiative crafted by RAW fifteen years ago, to give local young people a chance to work and gain leadership skills. The RAW Chiefs is composed by a group of students who are selected every year to be part of weekly leadership training sessions. Additionally, each teenager is in charge of co-leading a group of younger kids that attend other RAW programs. All RAW Chiefs are paid for their work and their participation in the program is treated seriously, just like any other staff member. They are responsible for their work and are held accountable for their actions.
For teenagers to have a job like this—where they develop leadership skills, become mentors to younger kids and are paid for their work—in a place where opportunities are scarce, is a tremendous chance. While some of these teenagers have strong support systems at home and will likely go to college no matter what, others rely on RAW to be their home and the place where they find guidance and support. For some of them, like Jonathan, it may even be a life changing opportunity that allows them to stay off the streets and away from gangs and drugs. As Jonathan told me, being a Chief not only kept him away from these things, but also has made him a better father, a better worker and an altogether better person.
Every Thursday afternoon the current RAW Chiefs meet with three RAW staff to discuss issues relevant to their age and to create art surrounding these topics. I have been given the rare opportunity to be part of this group—rarely anyone is allowed to join, in order to maintain confidentiality and a safe and comfortable space for all of its members. Being part of the group with these young individuals, as they transition from adolescence to adulthood, has been one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had since coming to Lynn. These are very resilient and inspiring young people, who are at an age of tremendous changes. During group sessions we can go from laughing at silly things to talking about very serious and personal issues. It is a real gift to be able to document this process.
When I speak to Jonathan I can tell that he carries a lot of pride for having once been part of this group. Some of the kids he mentored years ago are now Chiefs mentoring others, who will then go on to mentor even more youth. In a place like Lynn, a network of support and mentorship like this one carries a lot of meaning, because it has the potential to change lives, just like Jonathan’s.