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Becoming ‘something special’

Photo by Mary Knox Merrill.

As part of the Youth Development Initiative Project at Northeastern University, Evelyn Perez-Landron and her mom bonded over novelist Zora Neale Hurston’s epic tale, “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”

“My relationship with my mom has grown stronger,” Perez-Landron says, “and we’re better able to talk about what’s going on in our lives.”

The 18-year-old rising senior at Fenway High School is among more than a score of middle- and high-school students from housing developments in communities surrounding Northeastern who receive academic support through the program. Founded in 2006 by the late Dr. Joseph Warren, the project also offers counseling and life-skills assistance to the students and their parents through courses on topics such as nutrition and financial literacy.

The program is part of Northeastern’s Stony Brook Initiative, which redefines urban engagement and facilitates a network of sustainable partnerships among neighboring communities and organizations.

The goal of the youth development program is for each and every student to get into college. Over the next two years, as many as 10 students have the potential to earn scholarships to Northeastern.

Northeastern is on a short list of schools that Perez-Landron may choose to attend to pursue a mathematics degree. Small wonder, considering the affinity the number cruncher has for the campus, which she calls “another home.”

Like some of the students, program coordinator Carl Barrows grew up in the Bromley-Heath housing development in Jamaica Plain. He knows how hard it can be to overcome a culture of drugs and violence to achieve academic success.

“Many of these kids face so much oppression and so many problems in their neighborhoods that it’s really important to take them out of that atmosphere,” Barrows says. “I really love seeing these kids smile and helping them realize that they can be something special.”

Beth Gillespie, S, SSH’11, who completed a co-op with the youth development program as a parent liaison and served as a volunteer tutor for the last two years, said she can’t help but notice changes in the way students approach their course work and interact with their peers.

“Their maturity and depth of understanding has really increased,” she said. “They hold each other accountable and want to achieve more than what the originally thought possible.”

Gillespie, who double-majored in psychology and human services at Northeastern, plans to pursue a master’s degree in social work this fall. But she expects to continue volunteering for the program, which, she says, has taught her as much about herself as the students she tutors.

“Volunteering for this program showed me that I have a passion for working with at-risk youth in an urban context,” she says. “It made me feel confident in my ability to teach the skills that I have learned.”