Getting a jump-start: Amherst’s ABC program celebrates 50 years of giving young men of color a better chance

  • Sid Ferreira talks about his experience as a house parent at A Better Chance in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Sid Ferreira is a house parent at A Better Chance in Amherst.

  • Pierre Tilus, an ABC scholar, plays basketball with Keidy Cardoso, of Amherst, at a court at the house where the students live. Back left is Roshawn Jacobs, 16, an ABC scholar, Charlie Woodfine-Holmes, 18, of Amherst, Darius Robinson, 17, of Amherst, Azumir Medina, 14, an ABC scholar, and Mayouri Wath, 16, of Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Isabel Ferreira, house parent at A Better Chance in Amherst, with her husband, Sid Ferreira, eat dinner with Roshawn Jacobs, Daniel Molina, Matthew Tyndell, Pierre Tilus and Azumir Medina, all ABC scholars. The program will celebrate its 50th anniversary with a gala Saturday evening at the UMass Campus Center in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Roshawn Jacobs, 16, an ABC scholar, plays basketball outside the house where the students live. Back left is Charlie Woodfine-Holmes, 18, of Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Azumir Medina, 14, an ABC scholar, plays some hoops at the ABC house where he lives. Darius Robinson, 17, of Amherst, back left, follows the play with Charlie Woodfine-Holmes, 18, of Amherst. STAFF PHOTOS/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Pierre Tilus, an ABC scholar, plays basketball outside the house where the students live. Back left is Azumir Medina, 14, an ABC scholar, Darius Robinson, 17, of Amherst, and Mayouri Wath, 16, of Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Isabel Ferreira, a house parent at A Better Chance in Amherst, with her husband, Sid Ferreira, eat dinner with Roshawn Jacobs, Daniel Molina, Matthew Tyndell, Pierre Tilus and Azumir Medina, all ABC scholars. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 6/14/2019 4:14:39 PM

AMHERST — When Pierre Tilus arrived at Amherst’s A Better Chance house from Bridgeport, Connecticut, in the fall of 2016, he found that living in a smaller, residential community was a shock to his system.

“I couldn’t sleep my first few nights here,” said Tilus, standing at the edge of the home’s basketball court. “It was hard because there was so much quiet. You get used to that noisy background.”

But as Tilus, 16, completes his third year in the A Better Chance (ABC) program, which serves young men of color from educationally underserved school districts, he has grown to appreciate life here.

“Amherst has a much different education. Academics is taken much more seriously,” said Tilus, who has just a year left before graduating alongside his classmates at Amherst Regional High School. 

In the late 1960s, ABC alum William Foster arrived in the area under similar circumstances, coming from Philadelphia, living at the ABC home and studying at the high school. Foster, one of the original ABC scholars, graduated and enrolled at the University of Massachusetts before becoming a longtime professor at Naugatuck Valley Community College in Waterbury, Connecticut.

“The ABC program is a really important part of who I am,” Foster said recently, adding that the cross-cultural understanding he and his fellow students developed over time is something he will always remember. “One of the biggest lessons I learned is that everyone who is white was not my enemy.”

“I really give thanks to the people of Amherst who were open to us,” Foster said.

On Saturday evening, beginning at 6 p.m. at the UMass Campus Center, the Amherst ABC program is holding a 50th anniversary gala titled “Celebrating Our Past, Building for Tomorrow.” About two dozen alumni, several founders and some early volunteers will join local officials and state legislators in marking the milestone. ABC in Amherst is part of a national program that counts more than 16,000 alumni nationwide, including former Gov. Deval Patrick.

The Amherst event will honor Barry and Judy Brooks, longtime educators and community leaders who served as ABC house parents from 1971 to 1976. Judy Brooks, who died last year and was known as a “community superstar,” and her husband, Barry Brooks, a longtime guidance councilor who will be in attendance, are credited with sustaining and supporting strong bonds with ABC scholars when they were house parents and in the years that followed.

Sid Ferreira, who with his wife, Isabel Ferreira, is completing his third year as a house parent, said he appreciates that the program provides an alternative to teenagers remaining in often underfunded inner-city schools, where they face obstacles to the education they deserve.

“This gives them access to honors courses, sports programs and also a community that really supports them,” Ferreira said. “For them, it’s an opportunity for a better chance, especially academically.”

Ferreira said the students also become citizens of the community during their time in the program. Although there is plenty of time for fun and relaxation, whether playing basketball in the court set up in the home’s driveway or video games inside the house, there are also requirements for the students to be in a study room at 7 p.m. and to do various chores, including making sure their rooms are clean and presentable, as well as community service, such as volunteering at the Not Bread Alone soup kitchen. The house parents join the students for dinner, and the Ferreiras have arranged for the scholars to make wooden birdhouses in a makeshift studio in the basement.

Though the program has changed and adapted over time — there are lessons on how to use social media responsibly, for instance — the core mission has remained the same. That mission, Ferreira said, is to guide a transformation as the scholars grow from young freshmen, in an unfamiliar location away from their homes and family, to adults ready for college.

“The philosophy and mission has stayed consistent throughout,” Ferreira said. “The best thing about this program is you see results, you see outcomes.”

On a wall at the entrance to the North Prospect Street home, you also see a display of photos of the 130 or so alumni of the program in Amherst.

Keith Nesbitt, the incoming president of the ABC board, said there has been tremendous support for the program from the community over the past 50 years and that it remains a tangible manifestation of the values of Amherst.

“Amherst A Better Chance will always be focused on supporting the personal and academic development of our scholars,” Nesbitt said.

Amherst College, which helped found the program in 1968, provides student tutors through the fall and spring semesters, visiting Thursdays through Sundays. During the winter session, members of the women and men’s basketball teams can be found helping the students with academic work.

The scholars, with up to eight living in the house at one time, are chosen for their leadership potential in a process that is similar to applying for college. Working with ABC’s national program, the students apply and are interviewed, and then get a chance to visit to make sure the home is the right place for them. They decide by mid-March if they will come to Amherst. Students are generally recruited from New York City to minimize the distance from home, and families are invited to visit and stay in a spare bedroom in the house. The students return home for summers.

Tilus got introduced to the program by the principal at his previous middle school in Bridgeport who thought Amherst would provide a better educational opportunity.

Although he has not begun applying to college, Tilus is starting to look at schools in Florida, where his family now lives, and Georgia, noting that he likes the warm climate.

One of the other current scholars, Roshawn Jacobs, 16, of Patterson, New Jersey, is in his second year.

“I liked the idea of a better opportunity to educate myself,” said Jacobs, who appreciates the quiet of the neighborhood. Even when the college students are being rowdy, he said, it’s still quieter than his home in Patterson.

Jacobs said he expects to use a gap year between high school graduation and college to focus on a clothing design business he plans to launch.

Foster, who retired as a professor, is currently completing the manuscript for a book about the early years of the ABC program in Amherst, which he plans to publish around the holidays.

Wendy Kohler, outgoing president of the board, said graduates of the program have become a living legacy for its current students.

“Fifty years ago, Amherst ABC came into being because the community was committed to erasing the education gap and nurturing young men of color to realize their full potential,” Kohler wrote in a statement she plans to present at the gala. “That commitment, held firm over the past five decades, will continue to motivate our Amherst community to sustain and invigorate Amherst A Better Chance in the years to come.”

It takes about $130,000 annually to operate the program, with the gala helping to support that, along with other events, including the annual Fall Foliage 5K Walk and Run and the spring Gospel Choir Concert.

As a UMass employee, Ferreira participates in and encourages his colleagues to donate to the program through an annual campaign.

Every dollar helps, he said, to get the scholars ready to continue their studies or move into the workforce.

“It’s a lot of work, but they are worth it,” Ferreira said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.


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