Nearly seven years ago, ROCA founder and CEO Molly Baldwin gathered her staff in a conference room and decided to address a question that had been nagging her for some time.
While everyone in Chelsea, Revere and other nearby locales loved and praised ROCA for its work with gang members and local youth, the organization’s own founder wasn’t so sure it was as great as everyone was saying – at least when it came to transforming the lives of the kids hanging around the center on Park Square.
“I had to ask the question at that time about whether we were really being helpful to these kids,” said Baldwin recently. “We were doing what we knew how to do, but we weren’t tracking how the kids were doing. We were mostly a hangout, a place for kids to come that was safe from the street activity. But when we asked whether or not we were really helping these kids, we didn’t know. We didn’t track their progress or set tough expectations for them. We simply opened the doors to them. Sadly, I don’t think we were really helping them, and that was a heavy weight to carry. So, we decided at that moment we had to do something different.”
That epiphany moment for the organization – founded in 1988 – resulted in a total transformation where ROCA targeted two specific populations (high-risk young men 17-24 who have been in jail and likely will go back; and high-risk young mothers) and implemented rigid standards for those that entered the program. Additionally, they put in place a sophisticated tracking system that has proven to be worth its weight in gold.
Having just celebrated its 25th year in existence, ROCA – which still serves mostly Chelsea youth (46 percent in 2012) – has fully implemented the changes demanded seven years ago and has become a nationwide model in what is known as performance-based outcomes.
As explained in their most recent report, ROCA changed its mission.
“ROCA understood that just creating a place for young people to belong or be engaged in activities wasn’t good enough,” read the report. “Rather, ROCA realized that these young people deserved and needed the organization to get better at his mission to move them out of harm’s way and toward economic independence. ROCA had to learn how to help them change and learn new behaviors.”
Documenting this change has been critical, Baldwin said, and she pointed to the first year of results to tell the story about how they are now truly helping young people.
She said that 39 young people in their new target audience moved to the final Phase 3 of their new program in 2012. Moving to that phase means participants have had three months of unsubsidized employment, made educational gains, had no new arrests for six months and no technical program violations within six months.
Of the 39 in Phase 3, 79 percent stayed employed, and 70 percent made educational gains.
However, the most important numbers, Baldwin said, are those that tell a story of breaking a cycle of violence, arrest and incarceration. Those numbers detail that 90 percent of the participants had no new arrests and 100 percent committed no new technical violations within the program.
That was success she could point to.
“Having this first year of data to look at was huge,” said Baldwin. “It showed that we had moved from an organization who could not point to success to an organization that could document success and could even pinpoint specific successes and specific failures. If you don’t know what’s working, how can you get better at it? If you don’t know what’s failing, how can you refine it?
“Over the past year in particular, we believe that we have focused on a singular mission: making ROCA’s intervention model for high-risk young people a real solution for addressing violence and poverty in this country,” continued Baldwin.
Getting there, however, meant making some tough choices.
First, the door was no longer open to anyone that walked through it. The organization had to hone in on its core group. Many were turned away because they did not fit the new criteria. It was tough, but had to be done to get better at the mission of truly helping young people – specifically the most at-risk young people.
Being a de facto community center was not going to cut it any longer.
Secondly, they had to commit to aggressively training youth workers and giving them a strict plan to use with their charges. That plan was a three-year, goal-oriented outline designed to take young men from jail to employment to full self-sufficiency.
“We are serious about that model,” said Baldwin. “If they are not meeting their goals, we tell them, ‘Hey, you have to go.’ And we make those tough decisions now. Likewise, when they’ve completed the three-year program, they have to go out on their own. We no longer will continue to hold their hand. At a certain point, they have to move on from us.”
That is also something they can document.
The Chelsea location enrolled 888 young people in 2012, and their satellite Springfield office enrolled 232. Some of them had to be dismissed.
Some 28 percent of those dismissed were because they couldn’t meet enough goals to make it to Phase 3, while 22 percent were dismissed due to not completing the three-year plan on time. Another 17 percent were cut loose because they couldn’t be found, and 9 percent got dismissed for not being able to move from Phase 1 to Phase 2.
Overall, however, they have found success, touting a 78 percent retention rate in the new program for those considered eligible.
Within the model, ROCA also puts participants to work.
Many might have seen ROCA participants sweeping the streets, cleaning City Hall or cleaning parks under the supervision of a trained outreach worker. That work is training, they said, to move the young people towards an ability to work in the private sector. Many have never had jobs, or if they have, they have an abysmal employment record.
Most of all, though, they have a criminal record that blots out a lot of opportunities.
Through partnerships with many local companies and some Boston companies, ROCA is able to place successful, high -risk youth in jobs that they probably wouldn’t be able to land due to their prior criminal record. In forging those partnerships, ROCA has eliminated a major barrier to self-sufficiency and a major reason why many young people end up in jail. Even if they want to do right, Baldwin said, a lot of times there are no opportunities for them to do so because of a checkered past.
Now, forging on into 2013, ROCA leaders said they are glad that seven years ago, Baldwin forced a tough conversation and an even tougher self-evaluation.
“It’s hard to admit you weren’t helping, that you weren’t helping them change their lives – or that you didn’t know whether or not you were,” said Baldwin. “We took responsibility for that, and we changed as an organization. Now, we have gotten better at what we do and we can prove it. We learned that if you’re not tracking your performance, then you’re probably not getting better at what you do.”