Andrea Perry ’93 doesn’t watch the evening news quite like the rest of us. For her, every story about a teen in crisis is a call to action. Having spent more than a decade working for YouthConnect, a program of the Boys & Girls Club of Boston, Perry has seen the devastating effects of violence, drugs, and poverty on the health and well-being of young people, and she’s made it her mission to help troubled teens turn their lives around. “These kids and their families want help,” she says, “but often they just don’t know what to do.”
That’s where YouthConnect steps in. The antiviolence program places clinical social workers inside police districts in some of Greater Boston’s roughest neighborhoods. Perry herself has directly aided nearly a thousand children and families, counseled youth victims, and helped teen gang members leave their gangs, find jobs, and even attend college. Now as the executive director of YouthConnect, Perry has caught the attention of the White House, which honored her earlier this year with its Champions of Change award in Youth Violence Prevention.
Key to making a difference, she says, is the program’s approach of going to the homes of youth in crisis and addressing the entire family situation. “Sometimes the work we do with the parent—like dealing with depression or substance abuse—can stabilize the household,” says Perry, whose seven caseworkers each help 120 families per year receive vital city and state services.
This collaborative approach works: Research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found a 59 percent reduction in YouthConnect clients carrying weapons, a 64 percent drop in aggressive behavior, and a 71 percent decrease in teen victims of violence.
For Perry, those statistics have names and faces. Early in her social work career, she worked with one of the Boston area’s most feared young gang members and helped him become someone whose name no longer appears on police reports. Similarly, her hands-on approach helped to break the cycle of violence that had ensnared two brothers whose family’s gang connections were four generations deep. “It took time, but they both graduated from high school last year and are the first generation of college students in their family,” she says proudly.
The daughter of a state trooper and a nurse, Perry remembers going to work with her father in suburban Connecticut and hearing stationhouse discussions about social problems. Later, at Smith, Perry looked forward to “the 2 a.m. conversations with housemates about what’s happening in the world or debates about current events.” That constant exposure to different views helps her in her work to this day, she says.
With her work receiving national recognition, Perry’s mission now is to expand YouthConnect into other areas of Boston and to spread the word that this model works. “I want people to realize that the youth served by YC are the same as kids in their own neighborhoods,” she says, “and that we should hold out hope for them, care for them, and embrace them.”
Fall 2012 SAQ
Debra Michals is a frequent contributor to the SAQ
Photograph by Jessica Scranton