Class of 2014 Difference Makers

Paula Moore

Teacher, Roger L. Putnam Vocational Technical Academy, and Founder, Youth Social Educational Training (YSET) Academy

This Educator Has Been a Driving Force in the Lives of Young People

Paula Moore

Paula Moore
Photo by Denise Smith

Paula Moore had officially made up her mind.

She was not going to jeopardize her credit, or her livelihood, for that matter, to purchase a home for the after-school program she started in Springfield in 2003 to help keep young people off the streets, out of trouble, and on a better path to gainful employment.

For several years, the historic South Congregational Church in the Maple Heights neighborhood had provided her with space, free of charge, to operate this initiative that she would eventually call the Youth Social Educational Training Academy, or YSET, as it’s commonly known, and give it what Moore called “legitimacy.” However, by 2009, there were so many kids involved, church leaders told her she would have to take the program elsewhere.

But there was no convenient ‘elsewhere,’ and Moore, while committed to the endeavor, its mission, and the young people it served, simply wasn’t going to commit her own money to buy a building for a program that generated no revenue.

Eventually, though, she said she felt “forced” to change her mind, and told BusinessWest there were many reasons she uses that particular word when she recounts this critical chapter in YSET’s history.

For starters, she said young people involved in the program just didn’t want to give it up after the church told organizers to move on. “Teenagers kept calling me … they wanted to come to my house, they wanted to meet at the mall, they just wanted to always be together,” Moore, a teacher of English and special education at Springfield’s Roger L. Putnam Vocational Technical Academy, explained. “And it was just exhausting.”

Meanwhile, her efforts to convince city officials to give her space — somewhere, anywhere — met with only frustration. “I couldn’t even get an old crack house for a dollar,” she recalled.

But maybe the biggest reason for the change of heart was that she started seeing some bad things happen to people because the group wasn’t together. And there was one individual, one case, that stood out in her mind.

“One of my young people had gotten arrested for robbing the Domino’s delivery guy at gunpoint,” she told BusinessWest. “He said he didn’t do it, but he went to jail, and this was at a time when he was asking, ‘when are we going to get together?’ ‘When are we going to have dinner, Miss Paula?’ I remember I was just trying to put him off.

The former School Street School

The former School Street School, a reclamation project in every sense of that phrase, is now home to YSET Academy.

“And then, it was like, ‘OK, I have to do something,’” she went on, fast-forwarding the story to the point where she arrived at the downtown Springfield offices of NUVO Bank looking to secure a mortgage on the long-vacant, century-old School Street School building, which was a reclamation project in every way imaginable, but also her best option.

Dale Janes, president of the bank and the officer who would eventually handle this application, remembers two things about Moore — her smile and her determination.

“What’s so impressive about her is that she did this on her own,” he said. “She took on the risk of borrowing money for that building because she believes so much in her program. We felt that she not only qualified on a credit basis, but her enthusiasm around what she was doing was simply infectious.”

As it turned out, getting the mortgage would be exponentially easier than making the former school ready for prime time. What followed was two years of hard work during which Moore would get to know those in Springfield’s Building Department on a first-name basis, take out loans from her credit union to finance portions of the multi-faceted restoration project, become the quintessential do-it-yourselfer, and essentially beg, barter, and negotiate with countless contractors to get the doors open (more on all that later).

What exists at that location now is still very much a work in progress, what Moore calls a “mini-vocational school,” a place where young teenagers can learn everything from culinary arts to karate; from dance (which Moore teaches herself) to drama, all in what she calls a “place of refuge.”

There is also a preschool, one of two revenue streams (a few churches also lease out some space), and opportunities for many young people to grow through jobs as junior staffers.
More than 2,000 young people have participated in the program since it was launched, and that number should rise considerably over the next several years, said Moore, adding that her not-so-long-term goal — she doesn’t know how long it will take to meet it — is to make YSET considerably more self-sustaining, financially and otherwise, which would enable her to get some of her life back. Indeed, she not only oversees the operation and sets the tone, but also drives the van to collect students for the after-school programs and picks up supplies on an almost daily basis.

When that self-sufficiency arrives is anyone’s guess, but for now, Moore is, for the most part, at least, enjoying the ride, both literally and figuratively, and making a difference in every sense of that phrase.

Steering Kids Straight
Moore was behind the wheel of the van for one of several meetings with BusinessWest for this article. Her schedule is packed — she’s at Putnam starting at 7 a.m. and usually involved with YSET in some capacity until 10 p.m. most weekdays — so for this interview, as with many aspects of her life, work, and life’s work, she was multi-tasking.

“The total focus was to get students off the street,” she said while explaining the genesis of YSET and also maneuvering the ramp to access the South End Bridge. “The 12- and 13-year-olds up to 18-year-olds … they didn’t have a place to go to. A lot of the programs in this area are geared toward children who are under 13. I saw that it was important to give those older kids a place to come to, and as the need presented itself and more and more people came, I worked with other people to figure out how to accommodate the needs of all these teenagers. And over the past 11 years, it’s just grown into a school.”

Backing up a bit — with her story, not the van — Moore said she was substitute teaching in Springfield at the time she conceptualized her after-school program. She had been teaching at Charter Oak Preparatory Academy in Connecticut, but it closed its doors, and she found some work in the city where she grew up and attended both Cathedral High School and Western New England College, and is now pursuing a doctorate at American International College.

“I just saw students who were hanging out after school,” she explained, noting that some were in gangs, but most were students at Springfield high schools who were trying to avoid trouble, not cause it. “And this wonderful church, South Congregational Church, opened its doors free of charge to the young people I invited to meet with me on Monday nights. Some kids were out doing mischief, and I thought it would be good to help them get on the straight and narrow, and the church allowed me to do that with countless young people.”

Paula Moore wears many hats at YSET Academy

Paula Moore wears many hats at YSET Academy, from administrator to dance teacher to van driver, a role she took on to help keep costs down.

In the beginning, the program was mostly about getting kids off the streets and helping them with the many aspects of becoming employable and then getting employed.

“At first, we were doing résumés and eating pizza,” she explained. “And kids kept coming. When you feed kids, for free, they’ll come back, and they did, in droves.”

Eventually, these young people started articulating wants and needs that were later translated into the full slate of developmental workshops and summer learning programs at the academy.

You could call all this a labor of love, but Moore said YSET was never her life’s ambition, or dream — she saves those terms for when she talks about teaching. Instead, both the program and its new home came about out of necessity and frustration. “This isn’t something I always wanted to do,” she said.

But within a few years of starting YSET, Moore was putting about 40 hours a week into the initiative and digging septic tanks for builder Dan Roulier, whom she described as a friend and mentor, to help make all the ends meet.

“He told me I was crazy working all those hours at YSET and that I had to get back into teaching,” she said, adding that she took that advice and eventually landed at Putnam. “This type of work takes a lot out of you, but it’s so rewarding, it doesn’t feel like work. I was working 40 hours a week at this and didn’t really realize that I didn’t have time for anything else.”

By 2009, when the number of program participants had become too large for the church to handle comfortably, officials there gave Moore six months to find a new home for the initiative. She remembers that her initial reaction was that she had done her “good deed” for six years and it was time to essentially shut things down.

“I’ll never forget the time I tried to say, ‘hey, we had a good run, the church wants to do some other things with its facility, so we’re not going to be meeting here anymore — but you guys have enough knowledge to move forward,’” she recalled. “Then one of the girls said, ‘what, we can’t come here anymore?’

“That’s when people started calling me and coming over to my house, and I knew I just had to find a place for them to go,” she went on, adding that she was further inspired by that incident involving the pizza-delivery person. After a lengthy and unsuccessful search for a small home in which to relocate YSET, the School Street property presented itself, and she eventually found herself in Janes’s office at NUVO.

The rest, you might say, is history in the making.

Turn Signals
Moore doesn’t have any ‘before’ pictures of YSET’s headquarters facility.

She said taking them was too depressing an exercise, so she didn’t bother. And she doesn’t really care to be reminded of what it looked like then.

Indeed, looking back on those days is a painful exercise, although the rehab effort was in many ways a rewarding and educational experience.

Indeed, she said she watched a number of home-improvement videos, became proficient at a number of skills she never imagined she would, and, perhaps most importantly, honed the fine arts of partnership building and negotiation.

With the former, she said she managed to create sponsor relationships with several area banks, the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County, and even Bob’s Discount Furniture. As for the latter, well, as one example, she pointed to the parking lot she just eased the van into.

Original estimates to pave a large portion of the property were $90,000, she said, adding that she quickly reduced the scope of the project by half, and then, over the course of several months, whittled the price of the work from $45,000 to roughly $8,000.

“I just kept going back and going back, trying to get that price down,” she said. Through a variety of tactics — from bartering to doing some of the work herself — she managed to get roughly $100,000 work of renovations for a fraction of that amount.

“I dealt with every kind of contractor — plumbers, electricians, carpenters, roofers, lead abatement people — and bartered and bartered with all of them,” she told BusinessWest. “I’ve written business plans for companies so they would give me work there. There were a lot of different negotiations I went through, on top of learning how to do some of their work; I’ve even torn down walls with their crew.”

These days, Moore is focused much more on what goes on inside the building, everything from shaping programs and schedules to training staff.

The after-school component of the academy now boasts developmental workshops in everything from “math adventures” to résumé and cover-letter writing; dance, drama, and theater to “reading exploration”;  video production to fitness.

There is also a summer camp that provides a host of activities, including fishing, hiking, swimming, and paddleboating, but also learning opportunities through the study of marine life, exploring the ecosystem, and water testing.

The lessons are interactive, hands-on, and project-based, said Moore, adding that they help explain the academy’s motto — “learn more to earn more” — and its mission to help young people not only get off the streets, but start on a path to employment. And there have been a number of success stories.

Na’kyia Slater is still in the process of scripting one of them.

Now 24, she started attending those Monday sessions at South Congregational Church a decade ago after Moore, or Miss Paula, as staffers and young people call her, spoke at her church.

“It gave us something to look forward to, and it helped keep teens off the streets,” she said of the program, adding that, through Moore’s help, she was able to secure several summer jobs through her high-school years.

Today, she’s a preschool teacher at YSET, a development she likened to “coming home.”

“It’s great working here; I love it,” she told BusinessWest. “It’s a great environment, and you can see that you’re making a difference in people’s lives.”

Moving forward, Moore said there are many things on her to-do list to secure long-term stability and growth for YSET. She would like a larger board of directors, for example, and hopefully one that includes bankers and accountants that could help bring more order to the agency’s finances. Securing additional revenue sources is another priority, she said, as is some long-term strategic planning.

And then, there are those efforts to make the organization more self-sufficient, in every sense of that phrase. Elaborating, she said she wants the agency to grow up, mature, and be able to stand on its own — much like the young people YSET serves.

“I’d like to be able to step back and not be needed so much,” she said of her immediate goal. “You want your child to be able to grow up in such a fashion that he or she can survive on their own, and that’s where I’m at with YSET — I want it to survive on its own, and it’s getting there; it’s getting its legs underneath it.”

On the Right Road
Returning to the saga of that individual sent away for allegedly robbing a pizza-delivery person, Moore said he recently got out of prison.

“I picked him up and took him to get some clothes,” she recalled. “And I told him not to go back to those kids he was hanging around with or go back to the things he was doing.”

Apparently, he is not heeding that advice.

He didn’t go to a job interview Moore set up for him, and sources tell her that he is, in fact, hanging out with those she instructed him to avoid.

“When I see him, I’m going to wring his neck,” she said with a voice that embodied that sense of dedication and enthusiasm that so impressed Dale Janes and everyone else who has encountered Miss Paula.

She has no intention of giving up on that young man — and that’s just one of many reasons why she’s worthy of the title Difference Maker.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]