Sporting a T-shirt and track jacket, teachers and faculty at the high schools Shawn Parker visits are skeptical of his status as a mentor for Youth Advocate Programs, a national non-profit which provides localized community-based alternatives for high-risk youth. They expect someone in a suit and tie.
“You have to realize that kids out here don’t really respect a suit and tie,” Parker says. “That’s not the neighborhood they grew up in.”
Parker even uses the phrase “mentoring from a suit and tie” when describing the divide that often exists when at-risk youth can’t relate to their worlds-away mentors. This relationship is just one aspect of YAP’s Safely Home Campaign, which promotes community-based alternatives to juvenile incarceration and residential placement. In a recent report, the Safely Home Campaign laid out its criteria for successful community based programs as well as the programs’ benefits, notably that the environmental and social factors associated with incarceration have a negative effect on at-risk youth.
“The advocacy community has done an excellent job in making the case that incarceration’s not good,” said Shaena Fazal, national policy director for YAP. “But where we haven’t made the same kind of case is [asking] ‘What are we going to do instead?’”
The report lays out the boons of community-based alternatives by digging into case studies, dubbed Bright Spots, of successful alternatives across the country. Included are breakdowns of community program tactics and profiles of high-risk youth success stories including one mentored by Parker.
These bright spots aren’t meant to discourage lesser-performing communities, but rather give inspiring insights.
“There’s still way too many kids locked up,” Fazal said. “But it doesn’t mean that people can’t be doing good things in some places, learn from it and try to replicate it.”
Fazal said she sees the example of Lucas County, OH especially promising in its use of a continuum for determining community involvement based on a person’s need. The scale ranges from cooperation with family for youth with minimal needs, to individualized services and paid mentors for the more serious cases of complex need youth.
“Their continuum really makes the case—as we argue in the report—that anything that can be done in an institution can be done in a community, only better,” Fazal said.
Fazal even has the numbers to back it up: the number of juveniles committed to Lucas County’s juvenile prison system dropped from 300 to 14 between 1988 and 2014.
YAP also avoids a one-size-fits-all policy when putting their mentorships into practice. Not only are mentorship relationships based on the needs of youths, but on their interests and goals as well. One teen’s interest in carpentry led him to pair with Parker, who has experience in the field.
Parker says that such a match is not rare in YAP.
“We have an advocate who’s a boxer,” Parker said. “So if we have kids that box, we try to put them with that advocate. If we have kids that want to be rappers, we have advocates that work in studios.”
Parker further blurs the line between mentorship and friendship. Spur-of-the-moment lunches are a common occurrence, as is their weekly Sunday ritual of playing basketball in Ogden Park.
“He’s just a very uplifting and positive person that I need around me to keep me focused,” said Cortez Wraggs, the 19 year old profiled in the report. “That’s why I feel like he’s good to be around me.”
By integrating with a community, youths are better equipped for real-world challenges like job hunting and resume writing. A teen Parker mentored needed a job to ensure he would stay off the streets. When the teen’s criminal record proved to be an issue, Parker enrolled him in YAP’s Supported Work Program, which helped him find work rehabilitating homes.
But some criticize just how quick Safely Home is to write off traditional methods like residential placement. Executive director of the Allendale Association Mary Shahbazian, an Illinois residential treatment organization, compares the decision to enter a residential placement facility to that of choosing a doctor for a child.
“If the illness is really, really serious, then the priority has to be having the expertise available to you,” Shahbazian said. “In order to move forward, different levels of care are necessary to have as an option.”
Parker said he still sees value in a community-based, mentorship approach, especially when the parent’s involvement is not enough.
“Sometimes it’s a lack of parental push from the beginning,” Parker said. “So with an advocate behind them giving them a little push, it helps him go where he needs to go.”