Alan Jones leans forward, hands spread as if to show how it happened. "Teen Empowerment cracked me open," he says with a touch of wonder in his voice. "I used to be shy, too scared to give a speech, but now I have a lot of confidence."
Nilda Amado echoes his sense of surprise. "I used to walk the halls [of high school] looking for fights," she says. "But Teen Empowerment opened my eyes, taught me how to take criticism and work on being better. People can't believe it's me now. If it wasn't for Teen Empowerment, I'd probably be selling drugs or locked up."
Ringing testimonials are familiar to Stanley Pollack, the executive director of Teen Empowerment in Boston. For the last four years he and his small staff have done trench work in the city's South End and other areas, changing the lives and raising the expectations of dozens of inner-city teenagers. The results reach farther than their own experiences.
Many have laid down their guns, abandoned drugs and gangs, avoided pregnancy, discovered their own worth, and then worked together to change their community, including reducing gang violence.
Against the backdrop of a society faced with rising youth violence, Teen Empowerment's bold intent - matched by its powerful impact on some of Boston's toughest neighborhoods - has earned it a reputation as an unusually successful model for helping at-risk young people.
"We have to stop looking at youth in the inner city as either just needy or the enemy," says Mr. Pollack, a youth worker for the last 25 years. "The best approach is to invest in youth as valuable, viable assets, as leaders that can make changes in the community," he says.
For Pollack, the key is making an investment in what a large portion of America perceives as an unreachable hard core of inner-city youths lost in a haze of drug-dealing gangs, violence, and early pregnancies. To him, no one is unreachable, be they teenage boys toting guns and sporting gold chains or girls who are high school dropouts all too familiar with shoplifting.
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