Participation in ROC Teen events has skyrocketed this past year, with the group’s annual operating budget increasing from $16,000 to $50,000 and up to 80 teens attending the weekly events, said ROC Teen organizer Steve “Virgil” Virgilio.
The goal of the Recovery Outreach Committee teen program, better known as ROC Teen, is to offer an event in the Charlestown area every Saturday as an alternative for teens who might otherwise hang out on the streets. The group offers a variety of options, including bowling, movie nights, and sober dances.
Virgilio estimates that 95 percent of the teens that participate in the weekly events are from Charlestown, but teens also come from other areas around Boston, including the North End, Saugus, Everett, and Tewksbury.
“They make a choice every week – whether they want to hang on the street or come ice skating,” Virgilio said. “There’s something every week waiting for them.”
Expanding the program has taken some extra effort from Virgilio, who regards ROC Teen as a full-time job. He works in construction “on the side,” he said. Most of his time is devoted to fundraising and planning for ROC Teen events.
For the past five years, the group has been funded mostly by contributions from local businesses, but the group is also starting to apply for grants, said Virgilio. This year they secured a couple of small grants and became a tax-exempt organization. He publicizes the ROC Teen events in order to keep the program as transparent as possible and garner more support from the community.
The learning curve has been steep for Virgilio, who has no prior experience in applying for grants or running this type of organization, but that ROC Teen is taking “baby steps” to becoming a more sustainable program, he said.
ROC Teen has inspired other organizations that serve teens in the Boston area to offer more free events. Virgilio senses some competition, but he views the increase in these programs as a positive outcome rather than a threat. “We’re the new kids on the block. We’re not here to take anyone’s grant, but we do like that it has sparked something,” Virgilio said.
Many of the teens that Virgilio interacts with come from homes that have been affected by drug use and alcoholism. In the past year, however, the ROC Teen events have attracted teens from more well-off families who are able to contribute financially to the group.
Still, the increase in participants has put a strain on Virgilio to keep the program going. He said that people have encouraged him to cut back, but he is determined to offer something for the teens every week. “So far we’ve never failed a Saturday, he said. “A lot of us have to sacrifice on our own. When there’s nothing there, we make it happen.”
In addition to fundraising, Virgilio is active in the community, going to the schools to meet with students when problems arise and even fighting for them in court. “This thing is on Saturday, but I’m busy all week,” he said.
ROC Teen has an approach that is unique from any Virgilio has ever seen, he said. Almost all of the events are completely free. When teens have to come up with even $5 or $10, only half the usual amount can afford to attend, Virgilio said.
The group also provides a welcoming environment for the teens. “A lot of agencies demand respect from the teenagers, and with ROC, we give them respect. It’s a big difference,” said Virgilio.
Virgilio approaches the teens with a special understanding and appreciation of the problems that they are going through. “I don’t forget where I was at that age. I know what they’re going through. I know the streets, I know the recovery, I know the drug pressures, and I know the family pressures. I know where they are,” he said.
The ROC Teen group has had a profound influence on many of the teens who have participated. Virgilio noticed that teens started going back to school and graduating. Some of the students who were involved with the group from the beginning have shown an interest in donating and helping to run the group.
Roots of ROC
The group started five years ago when Virgilio met with three teens as part of a drug and alcohol recovery program to talk about personal and family problems. After that initial meeting, at the request of the teens, they started getting together every week.
In the first year, attendance increased to about 20 teens, and Virgilio started offering food and fun outings in addition to the opportunity to talk about their problems. In the past year, attendance at the weekly events increased dramatically, said Virgilio.
As the group grew, the teens became less comfortable sharing, said Virgilio. He has found that teens still receive mentoring through the group by connecting with some of the chaperones who help out at the weekly events. For the most part, the teens take the initiative in approaching the chaperones that they trust, said Virgilio.
In addition to offering weekly events in the Charlestown area, Virgilio offers trips to places where most of the teens he works with would never have dreamed of going, such as Six Flags New England near Springfield, Mass. and Canobie Lake Amusement Park in New Hampshire. Although some have criticized these trips as extravagances, Virgilio believes that they make the teens feel like they have normal lives.
The first major trip Virgilio organized was inspired by a conversation with a small group of teens who were convinced that they would never see Disney World. But with the help of generous contributions from Virgilio’s boss in the construction business and various online donors, 25 teens went to Disney World with all expenses paid.
“It was like a dream come true,” said Virgilio. “I put my ticket in first. Then I ran back and I watched them come into the park one by one. I had tears in my eyes. It was amazing.”
More recently, Virgilio was inspired by the popular television show to organize a day trip to Jersey Shore for this upcoming May. He posted the event on Facebook, and within a week, over 100 teens had responded.
Despite the daily struggle to keep the group going and keep the events free, Virgilio is hopeful for the future. “I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the kids from the original group, or a couple of them, came back and kept the group going,” he said.