(Photo by Terri Ogan)
By Terri Ogan, Globe Correspondent
This fall, 12-year-old Dashawn Borden was at a friend’s birthday party near Ronan Park in Dorchester when a fight broke out between two people. It spread fast as other people began throwing punches.
“I just got to get out of here before I get caught in the middle,” Dashawn thought. And he did. He retreated to the Boys & Girls Club a few blocks away as he usually does when trouble comes his way.
When he got there he put on headphones, listened to hip-hop and jammed on his drums.
“I got it off my chest," Dashawn said. "I started playing my drums and just chilling and having a good time ...Coming to the Music Clubhouse keeps me off the streets.”
Dashawn isn't alone in seeking refuge at the Dorchester Boys & Girls Club. For more than 40 years, the club, as it’s called by the kids and the staff, has been a peaceful place in the Dorchester neighborhood of Savin Hill, one where children can be productive and pursue their dreams. With an annual membership fee of $5, the club services about 4,000 children each year.
A branch of the music program created four years ago, the Music Clubhouse draws kids from all over Dorchester and also from communities as far flung as North Reading and Walpole. It’s a place where kids can come after school and play the drums or piano, surf the web for the latest YouTube sensation, join an ensemble, or perform at the monthly open mic night.
And it’s more than just a program. It’s a place of hope in which parents enlist their trust. Trust that their children will be safe after school, avoiding violence that has descended on the neighborhood in the past. Trust that their children are in a place that can lead them to a promising future.
“A lot of families believe in the club,’” said Ayeisha Mathis, 26, music director at the Boys & Girls Club and a lifetime Dorchester resident. “A lot of times I’ve found kids that say, ‘Oh my mom was here when she was a teen,’ or, ‘My dad was here when he was a teen’. The club has been around for 25 plus years so a lot of families have grown up here.”
Take the Connolly family. Ed lives in the neighborhood with his wife Patty and three kids, Eddy, 18; Patrick, 16; and Abby, 13. All three kids are members of the club, which has been instrumental in providing them opportunities.
“While they’re at the club, we know that the staff is paying attention to what’s going on,” Connolly said. “The club’s enabled us to have our kids be part of things that are positive and teach them about life, athletics, music.”
The walls of the Boys & Girls Club are adorned with illustrations created by the many young faces, ages 5 to 18, that walk through its doors everyday. Pink construction paper with glitter designs or posters with upcoming events are thumbtacked to the wall. A sign that reads ‘Open Mic Night, Friday Night’ reminds kids ages 10 to 18, and their parents, that their chance to shine on stage is right here.
At one such night, a cluster of kids coyly tap their feet and sing along to songs like ‘Turn the Music Up’ by Chris Brown. Others read original poems. Applause follows.
That’s part of the ground rules, established by staff before each event begins.
“What’s the first rule?” Mathis asked the group of almost 30 viewers, through the microphone before the open mic night.
“No booing!” the kids replied.
“What do you do when your neighbor’s talking?” Mathis asked.
And this is no amateur hour.
The Music Clubhouse has state-of-the art technology such as recording equipment, instruments of all kinds and microphones. Although the kids are there to have fun, learning counts, too.
“Professionalism is top priority,” Mathis said. “If you have a gig at 12 o’clock you have to be ready to go, ready to start, set up, sound check, whatever you have to do. I’m trying to train them for real life.”
Building character has long been the club’s motto, said Mike Christopher, 27, a born-and-bred Dorchester resident who credits the club for part of who he is today.
Although Christopher never joined the club’s music program, he became a member when he was 4 or 5 years old. The club, he said, had the biggest influence on him as a pre-teen.
Unlike some other members, he said, he had two parents at home involved in his life. But at about age 12, he says, he had an attitude problem. The staff members, most of whom live in the area and connect easily with the kids, straightened him out.
“Whenever I did something stupid I was called out for it,” he said. “There was never any wiggle room.”
A big turning point came when the Keystone Club -- a teen program affiliated with the Boys & Girls Club -- awarded him a scholarship to attend a Northeastern University baseball camp. When Christopher and his friends arrived at Northeastern, he said, they acted like “punks.” They were kicked out and dressed down at the club, a lesson Christopher says he’ll never forget.
Today he works in the executive office of public safety in government relations for Gov. Deval Patrick, carrying the club’s life values of respect with him every day.
Frank Baker, city councilor for District 3 and a Savin Hill resident, says the club has always provided a good road map for kids on how to grow up.
“Someone just getting through high school and into college is a success story,” Baker said. “Someone just getting a job and being a productive member in society...I think the club helps facilitate those kind of people.”
Mathis hopes she’s doing just that with Dashawn Borden. She’s trying to inspire Dashawn to build success out of his love for the drums, something that was sparked by a trip to Downtown Crossing with his uncle.
When Dashawn was about 8-years-old, his uncle used to come over with a laundry basket full of buckets, pots and one symbol. Dashawn asked what everything was for, so his uncle took him downtown to find out.
There among a group of break dancers and other musicians, Dashawn’s uncle started playing the buckets. He brought in almost $500, Dashawn recalls. He was enthralled.
Although the club’s staff mentors kids like Dashawn throughout its programs, the kids have to engage and commit, too.
“You can only bring a horse to the water. You can’t make them drink it,” Christopher said. “It’s a two-way street. You can’t just show up and expect everything to fall into place. In some of these communities, this can be a real challenge.”
Even when kids veer off track, however, staff like Mathis don’t give up on them. The club counselors pull kids out of trouble when they notice them hanging out with the wrong crowd and encourage them to make positive decisions.
It all starts with inspiration, Mathis said.
“What I like to do is expose them [the children] to music on a professional level and inform them that they are capable of achieving their goals with hard work,” Mathis said. “We push them to limits and help them reach those limits so once they reach them they can continue to grow and continue to learn and become better and better at their craft.”
Sometimes the club uses peers to get students back on track.
Dashawn, who is part of a band at the club called “The Era,” learned that the hard way. The band has performed at Boys & Girls Club events and last summer, at the Beantown Jazz Festival, it played for an audience of more than 1,000.
But after that big performance, Dashawn stopped coming to practice. Mathis called him out on his absence, prodding him as to why he wasn’t showing up. She kept after him, reminding him his goals of becoming a professional drummer.
His fellow band members weren’t pleased either. So finally around October, Mathis and the three other of ‘The Era’ musicians did something about it.
Dashawn sat in a chair in the Music Clubhouse surrounded by his bandmates who told him they were thinking about kicking him out of the group. The threat was solely to shake him up. And it worked.
“I was scared...they’re like my brothers and sisters so I can’t let them down,” Dashawn said. “When they see me slacking they’re going to give me that moral support and push me up.”
The band intervention proved successful, as Dashawn started showing up to rehearsals again. Sometimes, he said, a break from the club is necessary, because he comes so often. But for right now, with the guidance of his friends and mentors at the Boys & Girls Club, he’s sticking to his goals of becoming the next Travis Barker (the drummer from the now-retired band Blink 182).
“I’m trying to prove that I’m a good kid and won’t be on the streets,” Dashawn said. “Music’s a part of me.”
This story was produced through a partnership between the Globe and Emerson College.