Executive Director, West End House Boys & Girls Club
Andrea Howard grew up in a home where issues of social justice were dinner table talk. "We knew all about Cesar Chavez. We boycotted grapes and iceberg lettuce. We made those little Oxfam rice boxes. My parents always reminded us that we were lucky."
Today, as the executive director of the West End House Boys and Girls Club in Allston, Massachusetts, Andrea is still concerned with issues of social justice—and with helping young people find a little luck of their own where they might otherwise fall through the cracks. The children served by her organization come from families dealing with tenuous immigration status, severe economic strains, limited access to health care, serious drug problems, gang involvement, and incomplete educations.
"The kids we work with are the kind of kids most people would say don't stand a chance," says Andrea. "It's our job to not give up on them."
A Stroke of Luck
The West End House Club first opened its doors (to boys alone) 1906, but by 1999 it was in such bad shape that its president at the time, Henry Barr, had been charged with finalizing its dissolution. Fortunately, luck intervened: Henry ran into an old childhood friend and fellow West End House alumnus, Alan Lewis. As soon as Henry told Alan about the plight of the Club, which had meant so much to both men when they were young, Alan agreed to help save it. He and Harriet worked with Henry to bring the organization back to life, donating millions to renovate the building and upgrade the programs—all under the direction of the newly hired Andrea Howard.
Since then, Andrea has helped transform the West End House from a "swim and gym" for underprivileged kids into an organization that provides a diverse population of disadvantaged children in the Boston area with a rich array of youth development services. During summer break, school vacations, and after school hours, members of the West End House receive help and encouragement with their academic studies, college preparation, and leadership skills. They also have the opportunity to play sports, get involved in the arts, and learn how to make healthy lifestyle choices.
"For a lot of kids, what they eat here is the one healthy meal of their week," says Andrea, adding that last year the West End House served over 65,000 meals to its club members.
Ways to Be Great
Something else besides good food, fun, games, and attentive tutoring happens at the club. It shows in the statistics. For instance, only 59% of students attending Boston public schools graduate, but 92% of West End House Club members manage that feat. And again: only 71% of Boston public school seniors make it into college, whereas members of the West End House matriculate at an astonishing rate of 82%.
Andrea credits Alan and Harriet, who sit on the Board of Directors, with some of the spectacular success the organization has seen under her directorship.
"They don't want to impose themselves or their own agendas on the Club. They only want to strengthen it. They remind us take on new tasks and deepen our mission. To not just settle for being good, but to find ways to be great."
For example, when Andrea reported to the Board of Directors that amazing statistic of 82% of the club's kids going off to college—the Lewises said, "That's nice. But how are you going keep them there?"
It was a legitimate question, since only about a third of the Boston public school graduates who make it to college continue past their sophomore year. Personal problems, as well as practical and financial logistics get in the way. So now Andrea and her staff have begun checking back with WEH alumni enrolled in colleges, and she recently hired an Alumni Coordinator whose job includes things like helping WEH alumni fill out FAFSA forms online if there isn't a computer at home, or talking to kids about how to juggle a night job with a full course load at school, or digging up scholarship possibilities that could help someone afford to pay the tuition rather than dropping out for lack of funds.
Helping Kids Believe in Themselves
In 1988, fresh out of college, Andrea spent a year volunteering at an Alabama boys' club that wanted her to develop a pilot program to serve girls. Andrea recalls that at the time friends of hers were "jetting off to law school, moving to New York, starting big careers," but none of that had much appeal for her. Already, she knew that this was the kind of work she wanted to do. Twenty-two years later, she still loves her work. Ask her why, and she might tell you the story of a boy we'll call "Joseph."
Joseph's father was murdered several years ago in a drug related hit. His mother continually drifted in and out of the drug world. One of his brothers had been arrested for a drug-related murder, and another brother had just been charged with assault and battery when Joseph dropped out of high school.
"At that point," says Andrea, "this kid had every reason to go the way of his father and brothers. But we didn't give up on him. We helped him get back in school. And then we helped him believe he could go to college. And then we helped him get there."
Today Joseph is a sophomore at Mount Ida College, and he's got plans. He wants to be a teacher.
"There are a lot of kids like Joseph," says Andrea. "You just can't believe what some of them go through. I don't think I could make it. But Joseph—he's such a special kid."
Making Luck Happen
Then there's ripple effect. For example, a friend of Joseph's whom we'll call "Cenzo" had been running drugs for a local gang when, inspired by Joseph's example, he applied to college. Recently, Cenzo was admitted to Mass Bay College, and he, too, has plans. In a couple of years, he would like to transfer to Wheelock College, where he hopes to get a degree, like Joseph, in teaching.
Perhaps with a little luck, some mentoring, and a few follow-up phone calls from the West End House Alumni Coordinator, he'll get there.
For many of us, success requires little more than a combination of will power, hard work, and determination. But when issues of social justice are the stuff of your life, not just dinner conversation, it takes people with a mission to help others—people like Andrea Howard and her staff at the West End House—to prove that success is within reach. Andrea Howard understands this. In a sense, her job is about making luck happen for kids like Robert and Cenzo. Just as, a couple of generations earlier, the West End House made a little luck happen for two young boys named Alan Lewis and Henry Barr.