Mission Hill Coordinators Find Kids Blessing, Challenge

BOSTON--It was Wednesday afternoon at Roxbury's Mission Hill housing projects and as children ran everywhere on the asphalt playground between the dingy brick buildings, Amy C. Sykes '01 and Kimberly Beeman '00 tried to round up Green Group. The crowd proved too much, and in the end the two struggled to break up a fight between one student, Natasha, and a peer.

"Put me down! Put me down!" yelled Natasha, who was suspended from participating in Green Group for the day, as Sykes picked her up. But Sykes wasn't buying it: she has seen the routine before.

"No way, man, because I know just what you're going to do," Sykes said. However, after Natasha's hollering became too much to bear, Sykes was forced to set her down. Newly freed, Natasha promptly ran off in the direction of her former opponent, just as Sykes had feared.

As one set of coordinators in the Mission Hill After-School Program (MHASP), run by the Phillips Brooks House Association, Sykes and Beeman work as supervisors of Green Group, a job they said gives them a unique perspective on life at Harvard and beyond. Made up of nine eight and nine-year-olds whom the two visit twice a week, Green Group has Beeman and Sykes continuously struggling to maintain order and inspire creativity.

The Green Group staff was down to five on Wednesday, including both coordinators and counselors, so maintaining order required more effort than usual.


"It was a little nuts--we were short," Beeman said later in the day. "We have a couple of kids who are high-energy and need a lot of one-on-one attention."

And at Mission Hill, such individual attention does not come often to most students. According to MHASP co-director Michael S. Boyce '99, the low-income housing area was recently recognized by the Department of Housing and Urban Development as "one of the six worst projects in the nation." Boyce also notes that although the area, which draws its population largely from the African American, Puerto Rican and Dominican minority communities, underwent large-scale drug sweeps five years ago, at the time some residents alleged that sweep arrests were racially motivated.

Beeman said the MHASP program is designed to provide children struggling to learn in this inner-city environment of crime and poverty with "Something fun and safe after school."

"I think these kids are in particular need of good role models and a stable environment," she said. "For a lot of them, their home lives are kind of crazy."

Once the children are escorted to classrooms, counselors ordinarily help them with their homework. But with Natasha's suspension and a few staff to help Wednesday, only a handful of children and counselors were actually in the room. Two counselors helped students with individual projects, but despite Sykes' best efforts, some of the kids still insisted on jumping up and out of their chairs.

"If you guys are good, then you get to use paint on your hands," she promised, but to no avail. Thegroup was high-energy.

Sykes did manage to hold the attention of threeof the boys for more than half an hour, however,with (among other things), a game about tellingtime and an exercise in letting yourself go limp.This coordinator has clearly had a lot ofpractice, a woman by turns steely, animated andimposing.

"You have to be really straightforward andstrict," Sykes said. "They do test your limits tosee what they can get away with... You just haveto keep your cool." Of course, that's true of anychild, but at Mission Hill the challenge is toestablish an elusive rapport with students fromwhat seems like a different world.

"They really have no reason to listen to us,"Beeman said. "The general idea is to help themwork through things, because I think a lot of themstruggle in school."

Out in the hallway, brothers Kenny and Camiloare helping Beeman transform a cardboard box intoa puppet show theater for the group's show nextweek. Kenny is something of a showman, prancingaround grinning and making faces despite handsdrenched in green paint.

"They were angels," Beeman said afterward,brushing left-over paint off of her hands. "Butit's sort of unusual for them to be that good." According to Beeman, the two brothers suffer fromhyperactivity and behavioral problems that oftenprevent them from concentrating on the task athand.

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