Hailing a treasure: COMPASS at 50

Originally published in the Dorchester Reporter, Hailing a treasure: COMPASS at 50

By Dave Manzo, Special to the Reporter

The metal door slammed as Jamal ran from the Blackstone School in Boston. I’d not seen him in more than seven years, but I recognized him immediately. My first thought was robbery. My second: Who robs an elementary school? For what, some kid’s lunch money?

How wrong I was!

This year Community Providers of Adolescent Services, known across eastern and central Massachusetts as COMPASS, celebrates 50 years as a feisty, responsive non-profit that has transformed the lives of more than 42,000 children, parents, and family members, offering special education, enrichment, therapeutic services, vocational training and so much more.

In January 1984, almost by default, I became the executive director of COMPASS. At the time it was a sinking ship. One of the founders had misspent funds and fled the state. As a result, funding partners lost faith and terminated contracts. Our budget was under water. An organization that once had locations in South Boston, Charlestown, Jamaica Plain, and Roxbury, now had a skeleton staff in a small rented space in the Roxbury Boys and Girls Club. My hope was to remain afloat until June so that our few remaining students could complete the school year without disruption.

How wrong I was!

Jamal (not his real name) came to us from the Department of Youth Services. His arrest record was as impressive as his ingenuity. Along with three friends, he picked the pockets of riders on the T, moving quickly from station to station separating money and credit cards from unsuspecting passengers. Referred to our school, he was an angry, aggressive 16 year old.

For the nearly two years he was in our care, nothing appeared to work. He was unsuccessful in our school program. Job placement and counseling were fruitless. His offensive comments, especially toward women, were endless. At 18, he aged out and was gone from COMPASS.

To be honest, there were two feelings among the staff. On the one hand, sadness at failing this young man. On the other, good riddance and a collective sigh of relief that we were free from his rude and hurtful comments and out of control behaviors. I presumed that violence, either as a victim or perpetrator, lay ahead for Jamal.

How wrong I was!

When Jamal shouted my name from the front of the Blackstone School, he had my attention. What he said next stunned me.

“Dave, Dave, I just saw you from my classroom window. I wanted to say hi,” he said. “What are you talking about?” I responded. “I’m a student teacher here. I need to get back to my classroom,” he said. “When can we talk? I want to hear more. Are you free for lunch?” I responded.

“Tomorrow,” he said as he ran back to his students.

The next two days we met for lunch. His life had taken a path I never anticipated: a GED, military service, marriage, fatherhood, and now a student teacher. I was both happy for Jamal and shocked.

Then I heard him say, “I am grateful for the help COMPASS staff gave me.” I turned to him and said: “For what? We did nothing for you. We were ineffective and to be honest, you were rude and challenging. You drove us crazy.”

He disagreed. “No, COMPASS was there when I needed it,” he said. “You helped me through a very rough time in my life. I needed the teachers and counselors to get me through it and COMPASS was there for me.”

Jamal is one of the thousands of young people whom COMPASS has served for the past 50 years. He is not our smoothest or most obvious success story, but he is a good example of two things: First, COMPASS staff are responsive and do not give up, even when the young person is difficult and the path forward uncertain.

Second, we don’t always know the “fruits of our labors.” We may be planting seeds today and not see the harvest. Even during the most difficult days with a child or family, we need to move forward, be consistent and provide quality care.

And about that struggling organization that was on the brink of closing in 1984? How did it survive and grow? Three words: Faith, risk, and responsiveness.

First, staff in January 1984 did not abandon ship. They were young, in their 20s and 30s and willing to work together with an uncertain job future.

Even in the darkest days, they always put the needs of COMPASS’s children and families above their job security. Forty years later, this group, which was led by John Lydon, AC Malone, and Yvonne Vest are still involved with COMPASS. They set a tone that our work was about those we serve and not about us.

Look around COMPASS today and you will see the same selflessness and resilience at every level of the organization from the person who answers the phone to the teacher in the classroom to the community services staff member providing home-based services. It has always been a place where staff could laugh and support each other and believe in a brighter future for each person they serve.

Second, back in 1984, in order to keep the lights on and pay our staff, we needed a line of credit from a bank, money that would bridge the gap between what we owned and what others owed us. Twenty banks in Boston saw us as too large a credit risk. One banker, John Marston, gave us a loan. He had faith in us and was willing to take a risk. We repaid every penny we borrowed. Years later John’s commitment to COMPASS was so strong that he became our Board Chair.

It has been a long road from the dark days of 1984. This year we celebrate the extraordinary men and women, past and present, who gave of their time and talents to create the treasure that COMPASS is today!

Dave Manzo’s involvement with COMPASS began as a caseworker, He later served for 20 years as its president, followed by 20 years as a board member.

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