How Holyoke’s Roca program is helping ‘high-risk’ young men reach their full potential

  • Bryan Greene, left, a youth staffer at Roca in Holyoke, brings Kelvin Marrero, one of the 25 men he works with, to the Roca office on Jan. 16 so he can work on his resume there with an employment specialist from MassHire. Greene tries to check in with each of his clients at least twice a week. STAFF PHOTOS/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Tashea Jenkins, right, a re-entry employment specialist with MassHire, helps Kelvin Marrero prepare his resume at the Roca Holyoke office on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • At top, Kelvin Marrero of Holyoke works on his resume with assistance from Tashea Jenkins, right, a re-entry employment specialist with MassHire, on one of her regular visits to the Roca Holyoke office.

  • Kelvin Marrero, left, of Holyoke works on his resume with assistance from Tashea Jenkins, a re-entry employment specialist with MassHire, on one of her regular visits to the Roca Holyoke office on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Sutton Bradbury-Koster, right, an educator at Roca in Holyoke, leads a program on healthy habits for participants, ages 17 to 24, on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020. Other programs focus on obtaining employment or a place to live. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • A Roca crew made up of, from left, Jovanie Ortiz, Dayquan Little and Donnelle Gutierrez, packs up after a landscaping job on Fairfield Avenue in Holyoke. Roca clients work in various industries through the program. STAFF PHOTOS/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Holyoke Police Sgt. John Hart, the department’s liaison with Roca, talks with youth worker Bryan Greene on Jan. 16.

  • Holyoke Police Sgt. John Hart, the department’s liaison with Roca, talks with youth worker Bryan Greene, right, on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Melvin Malave is program coordinator for Roca, Inc., in Holyoke. Photographed in the organization’s offices on High Street on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Melvin Malave, Roca’s program coordinator, is seen in the organization’s offices on High Street in Holyoke.

  • John Casillas, 19, of Chicopee, is one year into Holyoke Roca’s four-year program. STEPHEN FAY

For the Gazette
Published: 1/24/2020 11:40:19 AM

HOLYOKE — They are ages 17-24. Several are fathers. Nearly 80% of them, if not more, didn’t finish high school. They have been referred by a range of offices and individuals: the Probation Department, a parole officer, the state Department of Children and Families, the YMCA, the Police Department, defense attorneys, the state Department of Transitional Assistance, their families and community members. A few just show up on their own.

They are the young men served by Roca, an organization committed to the alchemy of personal transformation. The mission is to help young men who have run afoul of the law build better lives through sustained employment.

The formula combines education, counseling and job training to help support young men with rough pasts in creating better futures for themselves.

Nineteen-year-old John Casillas of Chicopee is one young man who has been doing the work. In ninth grade, he started skipping school. Then he stopped going.

“I was doing negative things,” he said, fresh off a day of labor with a Roca crew. “I was hanging out with the wrong crowd.”

 His brother already was in the Roca program in Holyoke, and John decided to follow him. John has been in Roca for a year. From Monday through Thursday, as part of a Roca crew, he’s paid to pick up trash, shovel snow and clean up city parks, cemeteries and the Senior Center grounds. He and other crew members undertake a number of tasks under the supervision of the city’s Department of Public Works.

“They tell us to go somewhere,” John said, “and we clean everything.”

After 6½ hours of outdoor work, he returns to the Roca office on High Street for program work: circle gatherings with other participants to talk about their day and what they’re feeling, about thinking before acting, about rehearsing consequences. There is instruction in financial literacy, resume preparation, workforce readiness. John has set goals for himself. He wants to earn his diploma, get his driver’s license and a car and, one day, an apartment.

Roca’s job development effort places young men in various industries where they learn trades — painting, culinary arts, landscaping, construction and property maintenance, among others — as well as the conflict resolution strategies and communication skills that will help make them good employees. They also can gain certifications in CPR, first aid, lead removal, asbestos abatement, OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) job-site safety and food handling.

“We want them to come out with some credentials,” said Christine Judd, director of Roca’s Holyoke and Springfield offices. “We want them to have a skill set.”

Education first

In the language of social work, Roca’s four-year program is an intervention model. Its mission is to bring about a course correction for young men who have gotten into trouble or been identified as “high-risk.” The path to employment begins with education.

They start off with a grade-level assessment.

“We meet them where they are,” Judd said, “whatever grade level.” If a young man reads at a fifth-grade level, he’s given a fifth-grade curriculum in math, reading, language arts and social studies. “The basics,” Judd said.

They’re tested every three months in the hope that they’ve progressed to the next grade and the next after that, and on and on until they’re ready for the high school equivalency exam. Many of their instructors are volunteers working one-on-one. Some are college students. One is retired Springfield College science professor Bob Barkman.

“We love him,” Judd remarked.

It’s not easy or simple; there are reversals and relapses. But Roca is ready for shaky starts. Consider the name, Roca. It’s not an acronym; it’s Spanish for “rock.” Like the one in Gibraltar. Or the one at 384 High St.

“We are the most stable thing in these people’s lives,” Judd said.

From its High Street location, Roca is currently working with 101 high-risk clients: men who have been previously arrested or incarcerated, or involved with gangs or drugs, among other issues. Roca serves young women as well, also ages 17-24, though that program is hosted at the Springfield Roca site to which. Roca provides transportation. Some of the young women are mothers. The program for them focuses on preventing or delaying subsequent pregnancies, as well as gaining education, employment and positive parenting skills. Five Holyoke women are currently participating.

Roca is funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, the Massachusetts Safe and Successful Youth Initiative, private grants and donations. Initiated in a small storefront in Chelsea in 1988, it now operates in Springfield, Boston, Lynn and Holyoke. It serves more than 900 young men from 21 communities across the state, with the goal of “disrupting the cycle of poverty and incarceration,” according to its website.

In the summer of 2018, the city of Baltimore recruited Roca to establish a program in that city’s violence-plagued neighborhoods. Youth workers from other states — as well as from Ireland, the United Kingdom and Africa — have traveled to Roca’s Chelsea headquarters to study the nationally recognized model, Judd said.

For the young men and women, the journey to change will be long and strewn with setbacks. The first lesson is facing the facts.

“Truth, trust, transformation,” said Judd, citing one of Roca’s mottos. The truth is each individual’s situation.

“All our young people are traumatized,” Judd said. Many have seen shootings and domestic violence while growing up. They have witnessed — or participated in — fights, drug deals, gun violence. The truth part means facing the facts of jail, paternity, lack of education, lack of job skills, lack of confidence. Some face the facts with grace; others don’t want to look that close.

“That stuff bothers them,” said Bryan Greene, a Roca youth worker. “They don’t like to hear it. But that’s where the growth is.”

Showing up

Another truth became tragically evident earlier this month. A wave of shootings in Holyoke left two young men, both 21, dead. One of them, Racquese Wright of Springfield, had been participating in Roca’s Springfield program.

Trust must be earned, and that goes both ways at Roca. Among its educators and counselors are individuals who have emerged from the same streets that marked the young men and women with whom they’re working. They get it; they’ve been there. In turn, it’s up to the young people themselves to become trustworthy: to show up, to commit, to persevere.

If issues of mental health or substance abuse are evident, Roca calls in the River Valley Counseling Center in Holyoke for clinical counseling. Then comes the hard work. The first phase in Roca is all about engagement, building trust and setting goals. Next comes education and building up skills and competencies.

Besides the program’s well-stocked classroom, there’s a good-sized kitchen for culinary arts training. A poster quotes Nelson Mandela: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

The overarching curriculum is steeped in cognitive behavioral theory, which holds that young people who have experienced trauma take their cues from the part of the brain that urges fight, flight or freeze. For a young man who has known trauma, according to the theory, most everything is a threat. He lives in fear.

Through counseling and group discussions, the young participants work to replace emotion-driven behavior with behavior that is values-driven. The idea is to label your feelings and act intentionally based on what you value.

Because change is hard — and because so many of these young men do not arrive ready, willing or able to change — some stop showing up. It’s expected. One of Greene’s duties is making house calls to round up the no-shows. Greene, 26, grew up in the projects in Springfield. He knows the guys he’s calling on. He likes them, understands their problems.

One of the no-shows is “a great kid, a hard worker” but is struggling with heroin. Another, a second-generation member of the Latin Kings gang, is stressed and depressed. He’s 20 years old with a baby on the way. A third MIA was still asleep at 11 a.m. when Greene knocked on the door of the fourth-floor walkup where he’s staying with a friend. Yawning, he said he thought he was going to jail at the end of the week and figured there was no point showing up at Roca. Greene told him he might be misinformed about the jail thing and offered to come back and give him a ride to the program.

Making his rounds, looking for the guys who didn’t show, Greene checks street corners, storefronts and other hangouts. He knows they’re out there. In many cases, he knows where they are. Like the program he represents, Greene is persistent and supportive.

Judd said they never give up, even if the client has given up on himself. “We’ll find them,” she said. “We’ll find them when they come up for air.”

‘Failure is not an option’

“It’s one of the best things about Roca,” Holyoke Police Sgt. John Hart said of the program’s determination to engage and re-engage. Hart called Roca “a tremendous force” for good in Holyoke.

“We never, never give up,” Judd said. “Failure is not an option.”

Despite slips and relapses, the young men move forward with the work of behavior change. Sgt. Hart, who is the Police Department’s liaison with Roca, shares the staff’s belief in the potential of the people they serve.

“Once they’re in the program, they seem like really nice guys,” Hart said. “Once they do accept the program, they can turn their lives around.”

Judd said two-thirds of Roca’s young men who have participated in the program for two years and get jobs still have those jobs after six months.

“They’ve had a big impact,” Sgt. Hart said.

Hart related the time he and the police chief were monitoring the feed from a camera placed at a “hot spot” in Holyoke. They saw a gang gathering. It didn’t look good. Then a couple of the men in the gathering turned around, and Hart saw they were Roca outreach workers spreading the word of change to gang members.

“They are relentless,” Hart said.

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