The Boys & Girls Clubs of Dorchester (BGCD) has served as a safe haven and caring environment for the neighborhood’s kids for more than fifty years. But the organization is also helping parents — many of them single moms— find paths towards better opportunities and financial stability.
One key program that the club now offers is called Lifting Individuals and Families Together— or LIFT. It helps vulnerable families achieve economic stability by giving parents the resources they need to succeed. Based on the national non-profit EMPath’s model of mobility and mentoring, the program focuses on families with children ages zero to three.
There are currently 15 families in the program, including many that are led by single mothers who have endured domestic violence. All come from some of Boston’s most disadvantaged communities.
Mary Kinsella, who has worked as a BGCD executive for over 35 years, described LIFT as “really focused on disrupting the cycle of poverty through mobility, coaching, and mentoring.”
The program is shaped by its own leader’s experiences. Since taking over in 2017, director Rosa Shouder has drawn on her experiences as a teen mother who once grappled with poverty to guide participants.
“I tell them from the beginning that one of the reasons why I started doing this work is because I was in their shoes once,” said Shouder. “I was homeless when I was 17. I’m a domestic violence survivor. I was in a shelter and once I got my apartment, I wish I had somebody like a mentor to guide me.”
Shouder went on to earn degrees from Springfield College, Suffolk University, and Simmons University.
“In our journey, it’s all about recognizing that families are the experts of their own lives,” she said. “As mentors, our role is to guide and support them in tapping into their unique skills, helping them lay the foundations for a brighter future, one achievable goal at a time.”
Ninety percent of the families in LIFT are already active in the BGCD network, while others are referred by doctors, social workers, shelters, and healthcare centers. After the referral, Shouder contacts the family within two to three business days to discuss the program’s offerings.
She structures the assistance around five pillars: family stability, well-being, financial management, education and training, and employment and career.
“We work with families on their goals, and they are goals that they want to work on. Oftentimes, for families that have experienced [state Department of Children and Families intervention] that power got taken away from them and they worked on goals that DCF set for them,” said Shouder. “I tell them, ‘In our program, you set the goals, we just brainstorm with you on options on how you can accomplish those goals.’”
Tufts Medical Center is providing financial support for the LIFT program in Dorchester.
Sherry Dong, executive director of community benefits and community health initiatives at Tufts, praised LIFT’s financial literacy efforts in particular.
“In our most recent community health needs assessment, we identified financial security and mobility as one of the key priorities that we wanted to support in our local communities,” said Dong. “It was an issue a lot of people may not think of directly as health but clearly your financial well-being impacts your physical and social-emotional wellness.”
One program participant, named “Vevian,” moved to Boston from Nigeria, and was connected to LIFT through a family nursing program. After working with Shouder, Vevian quickly reached her initial goal of getting a job, but her relationship with Shouder did not end when her employment began.
Instead, the two continued to collaborate on other short- and long-term goals, including Vevian getting a driver’s license.
“Then we moved on to another goal of saving some money so she can buy a car,” Shoulder told the Reporter.
A driver’s license allowed Vevian to take on more responsibilities at work, where she moved up to become the assistant director of the program. With that came improved financial status and a new goal: becoming a homeowner.
“The main goal was just to save money because she wanted to buy a house,” said Shouder. “In the process, she was able to bring her mom from Africa. She could then do all the overtime that she wanted because her mom stayed home with the kids. With the help of her own mother and LIFT, Vevian was able to work extra hours and purchase her first home.”
Another client whom Shouder points to is Carolina, mother to an 11-year-old daughter and a two-year-old son who was recently diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum. Since Carolina was not familiar with that disorder, she began blaming herself for her son’s condition and feeling unfit to parent him. Shouder stepped in to teach Carolina that she was not at fault and had the potential to be a great mother to her son as she had already been to her daughter.
“When I do home visits there’s a lot of modeling for the parents. So, my role is not to go out there and tell them how to parent,” Shouder said. “We tell parents that they are the captains of their ship, they are the experts in their lives and there is nobody in this world that knows their kids better than them. We’re just really here to coach them and guide them and connect them with resources that match their needs. But at the end of the day, you know, they’re the experts.”
One thing that makes LIFT different is that there are very few prerequisites that participants must meet before joining. Unlike other programs, those who participate in LIFT do not need a GED or authorization to work in the country. Instead, any community member who meets the poverty level and has a child from ages zero to three is invited to join the program.
While the program in based at the Paul R. McLaughlin Youth Center on Dorchester Avenue, most of the work happens off site.
“We mostly see families at their homes, we meet them where they’re at,” said Shouder. “If a family says that they don’t have a space or they don’t want people to come to their house, we’ll meet them at a park, or I’ll meet them in the parking lot of their job during their lunch break.”
Shouder’s ability to abide by each family’s needs has allowed her to help them accomplish their goals. She says that “none of this incredible work would be possible without our dedicated and generous funders.”
Those interested in working with Shouder and becoming a part of LIFT should call BGCD at 617-288-7120 or email the clubs at firstname.lastname@example.org.