Chelsea’s National Model: Roca Delivers Well on its Mission during the Pandemic

Anyone who has followed Roca through the years recognizes that the agency has become the undisputed leader in transforming the lives of young men.

Indeed, the agency, founded by Molly Baldwin in 1988 and headquartered in the former Buick/Pontiac dealership on Park Street, has become a national model in its stated mission of being “a relentless force in disrupting incarceration, poverty and racism by engaging the young adults, police and systems at the center of urban violence in relationships to address trauma, find hope, and drive change.”

Roca’s outreach now extends beyond Chelsea and all the way to the Massachusetts borders in Springfield and Holyoke. Baltimore, the 30th largest city in the United States, is also “all-in” on the Roca phenomenon.

The daily challenge of redirecting lives is steep enough, but COVID-19 has presented new challenges to the Roca staff and outreach workers.

Early on in the pandemic, Roca had to pivot a lot of its operations, according to Scott Scharffenberg, executive director of Massachusetts Roca. “But the good thing was we were a little bit ahead of it. We were prepared enough to be able to go remote through the technology that allowed us to be successful for the short time that we were completely remote.”

A graduate of the prestigious FBI National Academy in 2012 and holder of degrees from Northeastern and Springfield, Scharffenberg explained that the agency evaluated its infrastructure “in terms of telephones, laptops, computers, and the ability to outreach our young people remotely” and Roca succeeded in carrying out its mission during the unprecedented health crisis.

Praise for the

City of Chelsea

While Roca has always prided itself on its close partnership with law enforcement, city government, and other local organizations, Scharffenberg said the City of Chelsea has really stepped up during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Fortunately, I can’t say enough about the City of Chelsea – Police Chief Brian Kyes and City Manager Tom Ambrosino have been great. After the state deemed us essential personnel, the chief allowed us to continue to do work as long as we were following state guidelines and everybody was safe.”

Scharffenberg also credited other supportive community partners including TND, Chelsea Collaborative, GreenRoots, the Chelsea Community Connections Coalition, and the Pandemic Response Team.

Safety first at Roca

Roca has cautiously followed the COVID-19 social distancing guidelines and been able to create a multi-faceted approach to its outreach operations that included a combination of in-person consultations with clients and the use of modern technology: texts, phones, Facebook live, and Zoom meetings.

“Our young people are pretty creative and savvy in terms of technology so we were able to create a hybrid approach to our work,” said Scharffenberg. “As things got a little bit better over the summer, we increased our in-person contact again. “Some of the young men and young mothers still didn’t feel comfortable coming into the building or seeing people, so we still had to do some version of remote work as well.

“The key thing was we built structure really quickly – we made sure that our staff was focused on the right work and what could get done, staying busy and being available for our young people.”

“And I must say, knock on wood – the team at Roca has been great,” said Scharffenberg.

An increase in need

for Roca intervention

Roca’s state executive director conceded that there has been an increase in violence “with our young people” across the agency’s sites.

“Like everybody else, they’ve lost most of their access to support,” said Scharffenberg. “Substances tend to be used a little bit more in these times. Employment for our young people is a whole other thing that we’re concerned about. Unemployment rates being so high, that doesn’t help our young people who are already way behind in trying to get a job. Now they’re behind everybody else who’s trying to get a job. Employment is top of mind for us. At Roca we feel that employment is a key piece to some of our success for our young people.

“So that’s something we’re really focused on now and something we’re adapted to – find some key partners and key employers around the state that need some staff and are willing to work with our young people.”

And if the past 30-plus years are an indication, Roca will find a way to execute its mission and help its many clients with precision and excellence.

Scharffenberg said the Roca office in Chelsea is open and staff are leading continuing programs such as Graduate Equivalency Degree (GED); HISET/Cognitive Behavioral Theory Practices (to help address trauma and behavioral change); Work Force Readiness (to help prepare young people and sustain employment; Parenting; and building trusting relationships with young people.

Members of the Roca staff are available at Roca headquarters in Chelsea to assist clients. The scheduling of appointments in advance is recommended.

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