By Ginger DeShaney
Sisters Courtney and Chelsea Mulligan and Vi Thai are spending this summer taking care of the plant beds and picking up trash along Broadway, planting flowers and caring for gardens, and cleaning up the area for the Farmers Market. But this is way more than just a summer job for these Youth Ambassadors.
It’s preparation for their futures: in education, in confidence, in the workforce, and in their communities.
“We believe they can … run the world,” said Linda Doran, Youth Program Coordinator of the Youth Ambassadors Program at the South Boston Community Health Center. “It’s nice to have supportive adults who have that thought, too. A lot of people think teenagers are nothing but a bother and useless. When you treat teenagers like that, that’s what you’re going to get.
“But when we say to them, ‘You got this. I’m putting you in charge. What do you want to do with this garden?’ … and give them the power to make decisions, they shine and they grow and become these contributing members of society with this feeling of responsibility and knowing they can make a difference.”
And they do … because YAP has made a huge difference for them.
For 17-year-old Vi, who attends BPS’s EMK Academy for Health Careers, “This is my first job. It’s a really good experience,” he said, noting that what he’s learning now will help him know what to expect for future jobs.
“I’ve gotten a lot of connections [through YAP],” Courtney, 18, said. “It made me more interested in doing more community work. Linda really lets you be hands-on. It’s really a youth program.”
Courtney, Chelsea, and Vi are part of South Boston Neighborhood Development Corporation’s longtime summer program and are under the tutelage of a former Youth Ambassador, Noah White, who is in his second year overseeing the program.
While a Youth Ambassador in 2015, Executive Director Donna Brown asked Noah if he wanted to work for SBNDC during the school year. “And I never left,” said Noah, who is now also SBNDC’s Farmers Market manager and the West Second Street Community Garden manager. He is a Suffolk University junior who is studying pre-law.
Noah is grateful to have a wonderful group of Ambassadors this summer. And the feeling is mutual.
“Noah’s really funny and really easy to work with,” said Vi.
“He’s a really good boss. He takes it easy on us,” said Courtney. Added Noah: “I don’t give them anything I don’t think they can’t handle.”
The Ambassadors like the gardening aspect of the job, including tending plots at the D Street Fire Station and O’Connor Way. “My mom used to work in the garden so we’d do a lot of gardening,” Chelsea said.
“My parents love flowers,” Vi said. “Growing up I’d see how they take care of them. I do partially know what to do but I’m also learning as I go.”
The Ambassadors pick up the trash at the West Broadway parking lot every Monday before the Farmers Market sets up. “For Broadway, it’s not too bad,” said Courtney, noting they usually have to pick up bottles and a bunch of cigarette butts.
“This year it’s been surprisingly clean,” Noah said about the lot cleanup. “We’re so used to it being gross and disgusting.”
Through the summer program, Linda hopes the Ambassadors realize the “connection to their ability to make a difference in the community where they live, work, or go to school. I think it’s very important to know their work is important, that people notice their work …”
She always tells her charges: “You can have what anybody has; it just requires education and work. And education is key.”
Chelsea, 19, is working on getting her GED. Courtney (EMK) will be attending Bunker Hill Community College in 2022 to study to become an ultrasound technician. Vi is planning to go to a four-year college after high school to study biology on the way to becoming a veterinarian.
Since 2004, YAP has been a resource for teens to explore health, art, and community service. The program’s goals are to raise awareness about community and health-related topics, to engage youth in positive and fun activities, and to empower them to take on leadership roles.
“[Linda] gives us a safe space,” said Vi. “As teenagers, we don’t really have a space to talk about our problems or how we feel about things. She gave us a space that we can talk to each other about it and share our opinions.”
The Youth Ambassadors learn about substance abuse prevention, mental health awareness, sexual health, bullying, and so much more. They discuss resistance and prevention strategies and participate in leadership workshops. And then they then go out into the community and teach other kids. In one example, they researched and presented on the dangers of vaping before those dangers became widely known.
They also do community service projects, such as fundraising and going to Tuscaloosa, AL, to help out after a devastating tornado.
“We are training these kids to go out into the world and become productive citizens and give back to this world,” Linda said.