By John Lynds
After 34 years as the head of the East Boston Social Centers, Executive Director John Kelly will retire and the neighborhood will celebrate his service to the community on May 18 at Spinelli’s in Day Square at 6 p.m.
Kelly, whose connection to Eastie dates back to his father who immigrated to the neighborhood from Scotland in 1925, transformed the EBSC’s original mission in the neighborhood as a social and recreational agency into one of the largest child care and teen agencies in the area.
“My father was born in Scotland and everyone over there heard of Donald McKay so he moved here and went to work at the Mystic Steamship Company on the waterfront,” said Kelly. “He lived in a rooming house down near the Mount Carmel Church years before I was born.”
Kelly was raised primarily in Needham, attended Needham High School and went on to graduate from Boston University.
“I then received Master’s Degrees from Northeastern University and City University in New York.”
But life would come full circle for Kelly and he would soon find himself working a few blocks from the former docks his father toiled on nearly a century ago.
Kelly began his career in the 1960s as a social worker and ran food-service programs as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty in Southeastern Massachusetts. His work was so successful he was recruited to help run similar programs in the Boston area before ending up in South Boston at the Boys & Girls Club.
“I wanted to start running programs for inner-city youth,” said Kelly. “At the time they were having trouble keeping teens interested in the Boys & Girls Clubs at the time,” said Kelly. “They had a lot of kids dropping out at 12 years old. So we started running employment training programs, college support programs to keep the kids in school and give them the idea that they could go to college.”
Kelly ended up as director of the Southie Boys & Girls Club and it was during this time in the 1970s he ended up supervising a program that was renting space in the third floor of the EBSC’s owned Trinity House on Meridian Street.
“How I ended up in East Boston is the Boys & Girls Club started running a summer food service program and with my experience during the Johnson-era in the 1960s they wanted someone to run it for the whole metropolitan area,” said Kelly. “So I wrote a grant and got the grant to run the program and we expanded to East Boston to the Trinity House.”
Then in 1983, following the retirement of longtime EBSC Director Jack Forbes, the Social Centers board needed someone to head the agency.
“Jack Forbes did a great job but the Social Centers needed to grow and could no longer survive fiscally by being a social and recreational agency alone,” said Kelly. “The buildings had issues, they had lost funding for the teen program and while they had great senior programs and some child care programs and the camps the board wasn’t sure it could survive much longer.”
Kelly took on the challenge and set out to rebuild the EBSC by redesigning the agency’s mission through increasing its profile as a child care agency while still keeping senior and youth programs as well as the East Boston Camps.
“When I got here I realized immediately youth and adult recreation was being taken care of, for the most part, by the city-funded community centers like Paris Street and Orient Heights so we needed to do something different,” said Kelly. “I didn’t think there was a future in social recreation because it was hard to fund. So I had to rethink it all.”
He found that many mothers at the time were craving regular day care so they could earn degrees and join the workforce.
“So I started really to push child care and began talking about quality affordable childcare as a way to keep the agency going,” said Kelly, “and how it was related to people and families getting off welfare or out of poverty by allowing mothers to become educated or receive workforce training and contribute finically to the family.”
So Kelly began cutting back on funding social recreation and began to focus more on what the Socials Centers is today.
“The funding for social recreation just dried up so this was the avenue we had to take,” said Kelly.
And as the neighborhood’s demographic changed so did the challenges. However, Kelly said that core idea of providing child care as a way to improve the lives of residents here finically remained.
“It allowed people to go to work,” said Kelly. “While the public school kindergarten programs helped, we filled a lot of the gaps because we were full time child care where as kindergarten programs were only during the school year and only during school hours. There was no direct care for kids under five, or after 2 p.m. or during school vacations or throughout the summer months.”
In the end Kelly said that he really does feel like Eastie is ‘his’ community even though he sleeps in Needham.
“I really have to figure out how to stay involved and help the people in East Boston that I have always enjoyed working with,” said Kelly. “I also want to see the mission continue of helping people become successful citizens. I’m interested in this being a welfare agency. I really believe that what makes people happy and what is satisfying in life is being productive, working and taking care of your family.”
City Councilor Sal LaMattina, who worked for the EBSC’s former Westford Camps when he was younger said, “I want to congratulate John Kelly on his retirement. He has served our community well and I wish him and his family many years of happiness and good health.”