Poetry, arts enhance outreach worker’s life, and his connection to city’s youth

Matthew ParkerMatthew ParkerMatthew Parker began turning his feelings and thoughts into poetry when he was a young teen growing up in the South End, with the rhythms and stories he created providing an outlet and an escape from the violent street life he saw around him.

At the same time, he was a budding leader in his community, organizing neighborhood activities and taking his first job as a camp counselor. Now, more than a decade later, his talents for poetry and leadership have made him a quiet force to help Boston youth find their own passion to steer them away from the streets -- be it poetry, music, sports, or dance.

“I try to give them something else to enjoy outside of their daily routine that is filled with so much trauma,” said Parker, who now lives in Dorchester.

As a street outreach worker for the city, Parker builds relationships with troubled kids and connects them to community organizations and jobs. But more than that, he tries to set an example and to help the kids he works with channel their energy into something positive. “I tell them, ‘I can show you what got me through. Together, we’ll find what can get you through’,” said Parker, who recently published a book of his poetry.

But working with at-risk youth is more than a day job for this 27 year old. He spends his free time working with multiple community organizations, including the Dorchester Youth Collaborative and the DotWell-Lee After School Program.

Often he combines his passions for youth and the arts, running creative writing workshops for kids and putting on community talent showcases. In the fall, he helped organize an arts showcase at the Lee School where more than 150 children performed or exhibited work. Parker said he’s now working to organize similar showcases for every neighborhood in the city, including one at Blackstone Community Center in May.

“He is someone who just really shines,” said Laurie Chroney, Program Coordinator of the DotWell-Lee After School Program, where Parker mentors the six- to 12-year-olds in the program and does poetry workshops. “They all love him. He is definitely a leader here.”

Parker said he sometimes stops by local youth programs just to offer encouragement to the young people involved there — kids having serious issues at school or living without a warm place to sleep or enough to eat. “They see someone who was around similar surroundings and somewhat made it,” Parker said. “I’m by no means perfect, but I can show them this is an option. They don’t have to always do something negative.”

Parker said some of his teachers led him to poetry in junior high school. He said it became a great means to cope and escape from the world around him, a world where he had seen people get shot, stabbed, and even die in the street.

After many years of writing poetry, he was challenged by a few friends to publish some of his work. He worked with a vanity press and released “Of Life & Love “My Journey” last month. The book’s poems deal with the tough surroundings of his youth but also with love, dating, and his passion for life, he said.

So far, he has sold about 100 copies and has nearly 500 fans on Facebook. “It has been a wonderful, wonderful experience,” he said.
Parker’s poetry really speaks to what a lot of youth are going through, said Maria Dominguez Gray, who has known Parker since he was a young teenager in the South End’s Villa Victoria community, where she had family. She said she has clear memories of him as a leader even then, when he would organize the other kids for activities such as a community haunted house. Parker later worked with her at the Phillips Brooks House Association, a student-led community service nonprofit where she is deputy director.

“Working with youth and always being there for the community has always been part of his heart and soul,” Dominguez Gray said. While he no longer works with her, she said he is willing to come and help out with training whenever anyone asks.

Dominguez Gray called Parker resilient and insightful beyond his years. He is able to connect with kids because he has a unique combination of realistic understanding of their lives along with amazing hope and optimism, she said. “He doesn’t talk down to them. He treats them as though they have a voice. At the same time, he challenges them to think beyond tomorrow.”