Martha Eliot Health Center: Teaching youth to be community leaders

Students from the Martha Eliot Health Center pose in front of the mural they created.

When the students of the Mildred C. Hailey Youth Community Leadership Institute at Martha Eliot Health Center learned they were going to be painting a mural, they were initially intimidated.

“Some were thinking ‘I can’t draw!’ or ‘I don’t know if I can do this,” says Alysha Noel, community resource coordinator at Martha Eliot and co-facilitator of the institute, along with Samantha Montaño from the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation (JPNDC). But, after working with a local artist to brainstorm ideas and practice, the youth quickly gained confidence. “After drawing their section on the wall, they were like ‘OK, I’m ready to draw something else now,’” says Noel with a laugh. “It was great to see them take initiative and control over the project.”

The end result, unveiled in a ceremony on June 18, was a beautiful mural depicting hands working to assemble a puzzle, with each piece colorfully reflecting the mural’s theme of community. Each student drew one of the pieces to give their own perspective to the mural’s theme.

Seeing their stories woven into the mural is just one way the youth of the Leadership Institute have grown over the course of the year. The institute — a collaborative effort of Boston Children’s Hospital at Martha Eliot, JPNDC and the Jamaica Plain (JP) Tree of Life/Arbol de Vida — helps students ages 13 – 17 learn how to positively impact their lives and the community through leadership and teamwork.

The students from Martha Eliot work on sketching out their mural.

“We talked to the Jamaica Plain neighborhood task force and we thought it would be a really good idea if we started working with the younger residents, so by the time they reached college age, they could step up and become leaders,” says Margaret Noce, retired former coordinator of JP Tree of Life/Arbol de Vida. Now in its seventh year, the institute primarily serves youth living in the Mildred C. Hailey Development, formerly known as Bromley-Heath.

Developing new skills

This year, nine students were enrolled in the program, which follows a social justice curriculum with the goal of helping them to strengthen their voice.

The group met twice a week during the school year and participated in an array of activities, such as advocating at the State House for a youth space, helping the Boston Police Department with a holiday party for community members and identifying needs in their neighborhood. Each activity served a purpose — building advocacy skills, practicing public speaking or learning how to handle issues like bullying.  With each project, the youth also were giving back to their community and neighborhood.

Another initiative was to reclaim an area, known informally as “The Cave” in the Mildred C. Hailey Development. The students put their budding advocacy skills to work to transform the spot into a permanent place for young people. To prove that it can be an engaging hangout, the youth planned a “pop-up” event for a recent Friday night. “The students went into full planning mode,” says Noel. “They gathered interest on social media, recruited others through flyers and organized everything for the event.” Along with kids of all ages, Boston Police officers and representatives from state and city offices also attended.

A year of growth

In one year, the students have grown their leadership skills and confidence.

One young man in particular made an impression on Noel. “He didn’t even want to share his name at first,” says Noel. “Now he is making friends, speaking up for himself, and has a lot to say at meetings. It is a testament to how this group has made him feel more comfortable with himself and being in other groups.”

Noce concurs. “The kids are much more comfortable expressing themselves. A couple years ago, some of the kids came in and struggled to communicate, but by the end they were very poised. When they gave presentations at the end of the year they were clear and thoughtful.”

Ask the students, and they see the same growth in themselves. “I have made new friends and learned new skills,” says Leslie. Another student, Abdias, is fond of the inclusiveness of the group. “It feels like an environment where you are accepted and can be yourself. I’ve learned how to be more accepting of others and how to work on a team.”

Overall, the institute has been successful due to the commitment of the students and the stakeholders. “This is a great collaboration,” says Noce, “but it’s the youth who make it a true success.”

Learn more about the Martha Eliot Health Center.