Creating opportunities for Mildred Hailey youth
In October last year, when a band of teens engaged in a rash of robberies along Southwest Corridor Park, street workers knew the culprits were likely from the Mildred C. Hailey public housing development, which abuts the bicycle path there.
But finding the group responsible before the police did proved difficult.
State Rep. Nika Elugardo knew how to get to the teens. She called My’Kel McMillen, an activist who lives in and grew up in the close-knit development.
“My’Kel had a relationship with them and was trying to rein them in,” she said. “He was one of the only adults they would talk to.”
McMillen set up a meeting with the culprits, who ranged in age from 13 to 18, along with Elugardo and a city of Boston street worker. They discussed the teens’ needs, which included access to food.
“We talked about how we could nip it in the bud and bring in more resources,” McMillan said. “A lot of kids just don’t have jobs.”
The robberies stopped, but McMillan wasn’t done with youth work. He was working as a valet and a staff member in a homeless shelter last year, but now he’s coordinating the newly-reopened Mildred C. Hailey Youth Leadership Institute, working out of a community center in the development. The center and his job give McMillen the opportunity to give back to a community from which he says he received so much.
“The center was a safe haven for us, when I was growing up,” he said. “A home away from home.”
McMillen started the job in March, just before the statewide stay-at-home order took effect. The space, in the basement of one of the development’s high-rise buildings, is a bit rough.
“It’s not a pretty sight,” McMillen says.
He hired an artist to create a mural on one wall. On another, he set up a free-style space on which teens can create their own artwork. In past years, the center’s staff offered computer classes, brought in guest speakers, took kids on field trips and offered GED classes. MacMillen said the teens currently engaged with the center will determine the programming it offers in its current iteration.
He started offering tutoring programs for the teens, but when the pandemic took hold of the city, normal activities for the center were put on hold.
Now, each Wednesday and Friday, McMillen provides meals for young people and their families and distributes face masks and supermarket gift cards.
McMillen credits Jacqui Furtado, a former youth worker in the development, with inspiring him to work with the youth currently living in the Mildred Hailey apartments.
“When I was 14, she gave me my first summer job,” he recalls.
Back then, McMillan helped younger children in the development with their homework and took them on field trips and outings to local parks.
Over the years, McMillen remained active in social justice issues, working with the Urban Edge community development corporation and volunteering with the group Keep it 100 Percent, which advocates for affordable housing in Jamaica Plain. He also founded a nonprofit, Mack’s Soles, which collects clothing and footwear and redistributes it to people experiencing homelessness and living in poverty.
Through it all, McMillen remained involved in the Mildred Hailey community, keeping tabs on the youth growing up there.
“Most times, you see people come from these communities become successful and move out,” he said. “I want to be a living, breathing example that you can be here and be successful.”
McMillen sees the reopening of the youth center this year as an opportunity to give current young residents the same opportunities he had growing up there.
But during the current stay-at-home order, working with teens means making sure everyone in their families is taken care of.
“Staying in touch with youth and their families is my priority right now,” McMillen said. “We’re trying to make sure that inside their homes and outside, the youth are safe and well-nourished,” he said.