The Boston House of Pizza was an unlikely place for developing intellectual firepower, but then again Joe Warren wasn’t the usual man.
Warren would go on to become a key political adviser to Gov. Michael Dukakis and the state and national Democratic parties. But back in 1983, Warren was the director of the Northeastern University Office of Community Affairs and wanted to start a summer program for inner city youth that prepared them for college.
With a little start-up money from Northeastern, Warren created the program and proceeded full speed to get counselors and students.
Carla Oblas was there at the time and pointed out that Warren’s office was above the House of Pizza on Huntington Avenue.
“He wanted to move fast,” recalled Oblas, who is now the academy’s co-director. “So he placed a lot of signs asking for help and interested students on the walls of the House of Pizza. He would then literally go into Mission Hill and grab kids from the streets. He would also put his own kids in the program — as well as the children of Northeastern professors. From the start, there was always this eccletic mix of people.”
Earl Stafford was one of them. He joined the program in 1984 as a youth counselor and has been there ever since. “I saw a sign up in the Boston House of Pizza asking if anyone was willing to work with kids over the summer,” Stafford said. “It’s changed my life.”
The academy has changed a lot of lives. Since its beginning, the mission of the program has remained the same — preparing inner-city youth for higher education. Originally named the Northeastern University Academy, the program comprised enrichment courses during the summer and academic tutoring throughout the school year. Eligible candidates are enrolled in the 7th through 12th grades in the Boston public schools.
Later renamed the Balfour Academy after a generous donation from the Balfour Foundation, the program also offers eight graduates financial grants to attend Northeastern University. Though this year’s deadline has passed, applications are due on April 1 for students entering the seventh grade.
Unlike the early days, the academy receives about 100 applications each year for about 20 new seats.
But the competition is worth it. Oblas and Stafford are now the academy’s co-directors and both of them rattled off names of success stories.
Like Steve Shaw who grew up in Roxbury and went on to graduate from Northeastern with a degree in accounting. Shaw is still involved in the program. Now a successful businessman, he makes a donation every year to fund Balfour’s annual “Rising Star” award.
Another illustrious graduate is Elizabeth Johnson. She also went to Northeastern and now has her own financial company. And there’s Mary YaYa. She was one of the first Balfour students and is now a Boston Public School third-grade teacher.
“We’ve had kids go on to do a little bit of everything,” Oblas said. “Nursing. Law. We’ve had a couple of kids go on to Harvard.”
What has been impressive to both Oblas and Stafford is that many of their students were the first in their families to graduate from college and many still are involved in the program long after their Balfour graduations.
They also now have the children of some of their Balfour graduates.
Chandra Ruff, for instance, is the daughter of Rodney Ruff. He now works as an executive for United Postal Service; she now has a 3.8 GPA as an economics major at Northeastern.
There have been some changes along the way. But the spirit of Joe Warren, who died last month at the age of 71, still lives inside the Academy.
More than anything else, Oblas said, Warren was an educator. And a mentor.
Just ask Stafford. He remembers his first summer at the academy and Warren told him to coach a summer league basketball team at Malcolm X Park. After the first two quarters, the team was losing badly.
“But then Joe showed up at the third quarter and got things back under control,” Stafford said. “And that was Joe. He let me swim on my own for a while. But when he saw that I was drowning, he came and pulled me out.”