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Massena native making a difference in lives of at risk urban youth

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MASSENA - Every worthy cause needs a brave champion - an unwavering man or woman who will defend, support and fight for it.

The plight of under-served inner-city youth has been documented for decades.

Their champion? A Holy Family graduate raised in a comfortable middle class home in a town hundreds of miles from the unforgiving streets of Boston. Massena native Emmet Folgert.

Mr. Folgert started an organization in 1981 whose primary focus is to provide comprehensive services to high-risk youth in the Boston area. The group serves approximately 2,000 young men and women between 11 and 20 each day in efforts to respond to the needs of low-income urban youth with innovative programs that celebrate their creativity and unique value to the community. Mr. Folgert serves as the exectuive director of the Dorchester Youth Collaborative (DYC) in Massachusetts.

Mr. Folgert’s organization has received extensive national press coverage in recent weeks with coverage from the Boston Globe, a segment on the NBC Nightly News and an appearance on Piers Morgan Live. It is not the first time his work has put him on the national stage. His work has been recognized by President Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama.

Mr. Folgert grew up in Massena, where his father, also named Emmett, was a well-known, long-time dentist in Massena, and his mother, Rosemary, worked in the office with her husband.

The younger Mr. Folgert explained that while he had a variety of interests growing up, social services grabbed his attention from an early age. “I played basketball and as a student I got into politics and was the student council president,” Mr. Folgert said. “I went to Boston College in 1968 and studied English and psychology. Pretty quickly I got involved in social services. I worked for Project Place in the early ‘70s so there were a lot of runaways and cultural things going on.

“I ended up eventually getting a master’s degree from Antioch University in Cambridge. I have stayed involved in public policy and youth services for much of my life,” he said.

David MacLennan, Holy Family’s hockey coach during the school’s entire existence, knew Mr. Folgert in his younger years and is not surprised by his success.

“Emmett was a brilliant young man who was very concerned with social problems and the state of our youth,” Mr. MacLennan said. “I coached hockey, but I know that he was quite a basketball player. I knew him through the school community. I had an opportunity to go to the Holy Family reunion in the (2013) summer and talked with him for a little while. It does not surprise me to hear about his amazing endeavors today..

Massena resident Donald Portolese was the Folgert family’s neighbor for about two decades and while the younger Emmett had started his professional career by that time he still noticed something special about the younger Folgert. “As he got older, he was very responsible and dedicated to what he did. He was also very well-educated,” Mr. Portolese said.

“I’m sure he could have done well in the business world, but he chose the profession he did because he is helping people. I’m not surprised (with his success) at all. I think that whatever he attempted he would achieve. He’s just that kind of fella. He roams the streets of Boston where you and I would be afraid to go. He is highly respected and he is well known there.”

Before starting the extremely successful organization in Boston, Mr. Folgert said he held a variety of jobs. He worked for Catholic Charities and founded a program called Project Headway, which lasted for six years.

When Mr. Folgert founded the DYC in 1981, he had a very specific idea of what he wanted the group to provide. “Our mission was to establish a safe place where young people from different races and cultures could join. We’ve always had strong sports programs, especially basketball, and soccer too. Also performing arts here is big,” the executive director said.

Currently, the youth agency provides a variety of programs ranging from tutoring and mentoring to sports, performing arts and job search advice. Looking forward, Mr. Folgert hopes to tap into the power of social media. “We want to create pro-social media that will shine a light on problems that low income, urban young people face.”

In more than three decades of existence, the DYC has garnered much media attention and has been honored with public recognition. In April 2012, the White House recognized Mr. Folgert as a Champion of Change as part of the National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention. He was one of 12 leaders recognized for their work to prevent youth violence in their communities.

In recent years, media appearances have been in demand, thanks in large part to one Boston Globe reporter and two young members of the DYC, George and Johnny Huynh. “This particular series of media appearances started two years when the Boston Globe did a documentary article and video. They spent a lot of resources on it. A writer and videographer were assigned full-time for five weeks,” Mr. Folgert said.

“It was about two Vietnamese brothers and their mentor, me. (The crew) followed us around for five weeks. The brothers were born here and things were okay. They traveled back to Vietnam when they were around eight. Then things fell apart when they were nine, due in part to domestic violence and the father’s alcoholism. Eventually, he (the father) fell apart and moved out of the apartment. The mother suffers from mental illness, and the older brother came to the youth center and told us what was going on.”

Mr. Folgert said that the Huynh brothers also had an older sister who became involved with the DYC. “The girl ended up having a very good adult, female mentor, and she moved to New York state. The boys are 19 and 17 now, and they were 10 and 8 when they came. We have been like a surrogate family to them,” he said. “They had a dedication to education. We just added other things like sports and mentoring.”

Mr. Folgert noted that despite the Huynh’s father eventual suicide and their mother’s continuing mental health struggle, the boys were not deterred from pursuing the American dream.

In 2011, Boston Globe reporter Billy Baker wrote an article chronicling George and Johnny’s inspirational journey and their involvement with DYC. Two years later, just last month in fact, Mr. Baker wrote another story documenting the young men’s successes.

He highlighted Mr. Folgert’s involvement in their development. “For the neighborhood (Emmett) works in, (DYC) is a safe place for these kids. But its real impact is that it has adults who care about them,” Mr. Baker said. “Too many of these kids are in this cycle, having so many problems with developing themselves and being in bad situations.”

Mr. Baker explained that the first time he met with the executive director he was handing out dollar bills to young people, enabling them to get much-needed food off of the McDonald’s dollar menu. While Mr. Baker admitted that the act seemed odd at first, looking back on the experience, he was not surprised that a caring man like Mr. Folgert did this.

“He is a trustworthy person, has a calm manner, and is easy to talk to,” he said. “Another reporter here got me in contact with Emmett Folgert. He introduced me to the (Huynhs) and they were so nice. I started observing their relationship with Emmett. It really inspired me and changed my view of the world. I grew to care about the kids and I’m now a mentor to them. I’ve never done a story like this as a journalist. I said I would give it a whirl and I have been there the entire way through this incredible journey.”

Mr. Folgert recounted that the reporter wanted to do a follow-up story on the boys’ successes. “One was in college at UMass-Amherst and the other teen was waiting on a decision from his early application to Yale.” When the younger brother, George, found out that he was accepted to the Ivy league school a few weeks ago, the reporter immediately took to Twitter. Mr. Baker’s tweet went viral. This led to a recent media frenzy for Mr. Baker, the Huynhs and Mr. Folgert.

“Two days later, Dec. 19, we did NBC Nightly News. Then ... Piers Morgan. This was only the second time the (Huynhs) had been on a plane, the other being when they went to Vietnam. ... It was a good show and we had 17 minutes of TV. For some it can be terrifying but I think we did very well,” Mr. Folgert said. “They were nervous being on live, national TV. They did very well though. We practiced a lot, and they did a fantastic job.

“Both appearances are really the story of facing poverty, mental illness, and suicide and reaching the American Dream. It was also about the kindness of strangers, keeping your head down, doing the right thing, etc.”

For a long time, Mr. Folgert has made a tangible impact on countless youth’s lives. Even though he has put in decades of tireless work, he realizes that the potential challenges for youth won’t go away and the process is never ending.

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