Cambridge’s Neighborhood Service Project, an initiative offering young people the opportunity to collaborate on community service projects, began its yearly programming this month — its first in-person cycle since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The program began as a collaboration between the City of Cambridge’s Office of Workforce Development and its Cambridge Youth Programs.
“It was created as a collaboration between those two offices to kind of marry the idea of youth development and providing opportunities for young people with the idea of developing career exploration and job skills,” George M. Hinds, director of youth employment at the Office of Workforce Development, said.
Jeneen Mucci, the director of program quality and training for Cambridge Youth Programs, said the service component of the initiative is designed to be long-lasting and impactful.
“It isn’t something that is done one time and then it’s something you feel good about as community service, but what is the learning that comes from that that can trickle out into the community?” she said.
Each year there are about 45 students who participate in the program, Hinds said. The students are divided into several cohorts — each headquartered at a different youth center in the city — that separately work on a team project of their choice.
According to Mucci, these projects have had a wide-ranging scope, from focusing on the cohort’s youth center to impacting residents in the greater Cambridge area.
Before the pandemic, Mucci said, students in a cohort at the Moses Youth Center organized an interactive “game of life” that sought to reflect experiences with racism and sexism that residents reported in surveys conducted by students.
Attendees were assigned an identity at the event before beginning their journey, Mucci said.
“There was a table that was college and financial aid, there was a banking table, there was an area that represented the prison system,” Mucci said. “You were given a pathway of how and when to interact with each of these phases, and based on your identity was how you were received.”
Mucci said another cohort recently focused on homelessness in the city.
“They decided that their final project would be care packages and giving those to local shelters to support those experiencing homelessness,” she said.
For projects organized at the youth center, students in the Neighborhood Service Project have focused on supporting their peers.
“They’ve done resource libraries in the youth centers for college readiness to get more materials that their peers could use in later years as they did their college prep work,” Hinds said.
Mucci said that before the pandemic, the Neighborhood Service Project began a collaboration with the Design Museum Foundation to introduce students to design thinking.
The first cohort of students accepted to the program was unable to complete the internship because it was halted due to the pandemic, Mucci said. Last year, the design-focused program was held virtually.
Mucci said the Neighborhood Service Project was initially established for 14 and 15-year-olds, but shifted to serve high schoolers during the collaboration with the Design Museum. Now that the collaboration has ended, this year’s program is open to students aged 14 to 18.
“We do appreciate and see the importance of having older teens to be able to support and mentor the younger teens,” Mucci said.
Hinds said returning to in-person programming will allow the initiative to be organized more thoughtfully.
“We are coming out of a period where we were innovating, but in reaction to crisis for the last couple years,” Hinds said. “I’m excited for the staff to be able to work in a way that is thoughtful, not reactionary — actually setting things up for young people to really have a great experience and have great success this spring.”