April 19, 2017

Editorial: Building a community with HOPE

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As a society, our track record with at-risk youth is not good.

More than 16 million young people “never had an adult mentor of any kind … while growing up,” according to a 2014 study. “This population includes an estimated nine million at-risk youth who will reach age 19 without ever having a mentor and who are therefore less likely to graduate high school, go on to college, and lead healthy and productive lives,” according to the study.

The same study revealed a disturbing paradox “that the more risk factors a young person has, the less likely he or she is to have a naturally occurring mentor.”

In his paper “Designing Effective Mentoring Programs for Disadvantaged Youth,” Wellesley College Economics professor Phillip B. Levine studied school-based and community-based mentoring programs. He concluded “that a traditional mentoring program of the community-based type, such as Big Brothers Big Sisters, is the approach most likely to be successful in improving subsequent labor market earnings among disadvantaged youth.”

These things together paint an extraordinary picture of the vital role youth workers play in the future of children and, by extension, our future as a society. Youth workers are our best chance, sometimes our only chance, to positively impact youth whose futures are at risk.

In this light we salute the HOPE Coalition and Clark University, which will sponsor the 13th annual Youth Worker Training Institute graduation on May 1.

This year, 25 graduates are making a positive impact at the following crucial community organizations: Girls Inc., Boys & Girls Club, Friendly House, Worcester Youth Center, Recreation Worcester, Ascentria Care Alliance, Christian Brotherhood, Worcester Community Action Council, YOU Inc., and Straight Ahead Ministries.

The Youth Worker Training Institute is a 15-week educational program designed to increase the knowledge and develop skills of youth workers, funded by UMass Memorial Health Care and Clark.

This year marks the program’s fourth year partnering with Clark, which engages students through the course, Fundamentals of Youth Work, taught by Jennifer Safford-Farquharson. This is one of the required courses in Clark’s Youth Work Practice Certificate Program. The addition of Clark students as participants has provided opportunities for newer, less experienced students to apprentice with some of Worcester’s seasoned youth workers.

“Youth workers play an enormously important role in the lives of young people. Youth workers are role models, mentors, friends, big sisters and brothers, teachers, and sometimes even surrogate parents,” Clark associate professor of  Community Development and Planning Laurie Ross said. “Increasing the skills of youth workers is an important step toward reducing risky behavior in youth and ensuring that young people lead happy, healthy, productive, and safe lives.”

Ross led the creation of the HOPE Coalition in October 2000. Its mission is to “reduce youth violence and substance abuse and to promote positive mental health and youth voice through a youth-adult partnership in the city of Worcester.”

The Youth Worker Training Institute is one of HOPE’s three programs. The other two are a peer leadership program and a youth-designed mental health program.

The Coalition comprises 13 organizations, including the YouthConnect agencies (Boys &  Girls Club, Friendly House, Girls Inc., Worcester Youth Center, YMCA, YOU Inc., and the YWCA), Edward M. Kennedy Community Health Center, Mass. Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, UMass Memorial Health Care, Community HealthLink, the city of Worcester and the Worcester Public Schools.

In a 2015 interview, Gabe, then a 20-year-old youth outreach worker for Straight Ahead Ministries, told the Sun about the positive impact youth workers had on him: “They made me realize that me being out on the streets was not worth me losing my life. I have a daughter, so if I die or go to jail, if I die, who’s going to take care of my daughter? That’s the type of thing they nailed into my head. I have a family. I’m 20 years old. I’m not trying to lose my life this young.

“I’ve been dreaming about doing this stuff since I was 14, 15 years old.

“I did not have any positive role models in my life whatsoever. So even if I did have a dream to be an outreach worker, I had nobody to show me how to do it, I had nobody to show me the ropes. I had nobody to keep me (out) of trouble long enough to go and actually pursue that.”

Funding for these important positions has historically not met the need. One hangup has been the source of the funds, the government, non-governmental organizations or the private sector. This is a tragedy, especially considering that in his study, Levine showed a return on investment five times greater than spent on community-based youth workers.

In an interview with the Washington Post, Levine said “it is better to make a sizable dent in an important social problem than to ignore it because it cannot be solved completely.”

With its graduating class leading the way, the Youth Worker Training Institute is helping make this dent. We owe it, and those willing and able to mentor at-risk youth, a large debt.

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