When describing the training program he has designed to prepare people to work as mentors for youth in the juvenile justice system, Joe Ippolito uses some expected terms, like support and nurture. But he is just as likely to lead with terms like challenge and agitate.
“In the best sense, an effective youth development worker agitates a young person to take steps to be the person they claim they want to be,” states Ippolito, who directs several youth development projects based in EDC’s Cleveland office. “Many people in youth development come to this work with a warm heart and the best of intentions, but you can’t simply coddle youth. Activities designed to engage youth need to be both supportive and challenging in a way that increases their skill set, self-esteem, and self-confidence.”
Ippolito and his staff are building youth development skills as part of the VOICES project, a program pairing volunteer mentors recruited from local faith-based organizations with juvenile-justice involved youth committed to the Cuyahoga County (Ohio) Youth Development Center (YDC). Working in partnership with Youth Opportunity Unlimited (YOU), the lead agency for VOICES, EDC trained nine mentors to provide youth services and support to address the many challenges they face in launching and establishing a career.
EDC’s training provides mentors with an orientation to the young people they work with, their backgrounds, and the challenges they face. Importantly, the training aims to strengthen their skills in youth development so they can design “intentional” youth development activities—activities that are based on a clearly stated relationship between the activity and the desired outcome.
“It’s wonderful to form warm, affectionate, compassionate relationships with young people, but that’s simply not enough,” explains Ippolito. “There’s another level you can take the relationship to by providing services that you have thought about ahead of time with a specific goal and outcome in mind. This is a craft, like the skills of a teacher developing a lesson plan. We see a lot of youth development programming that has nice rhetoric tied to it, but it is not intentional. As a result, its claims to success are vague, if not ill-founded.”
An intentional youth development activity designed to improve school attendance may, for example, include the creation of incentives for improved attendance. An activity to improve math grades would include math tutoring and practice sessions. In both instances, a clear correlation exists between the activity and its intended result.
VOICES mentors are also trained to use a “strength-based approach” to youth development. This approach does not simply address a young person’s needs, such as reading skills or language proficiency, but also identifies and builds upon a young person’s strengths and assets—their aspirations, areas of interest, and positive behavioral qualities.
For instance, if James has an interest in astronomy, a youth developer might engage local institutions, museums and resources related to astronomy to help him develop this interest. Activities may include meeting a local astronomy professor, an excursion to the Great Lakes Science Center, or taking in an astronomy exhibit at a local museum. James may then be asked to work on a research project to address a current issue in astronomy identified by the professor.
Ippolito stresses that a strength-based approach does not diminish the importance of addressing a young person’s core needs. “James may be interested in astronomy, but if he’s reading at a third grade level, that has to be addressed. The key in this example would be to provide him with reading material that he wantsto read, that calls upon his interests and talents,” explains Ippolito.
The need for youth mentoring programs is particularly strong in Cleveland, which was rated the poorest major city in the U.S. in a survey conducted two years ago. Cleveland’s school district has a graduation rate below 40 percent. As a result, young people in the greater Cleveland area face tremendous obstacles with respect to job placement and employment.
“The need to develop academic and occupational skills for Cleveland’s youth is urgent,” says Ippolito. “We have literally hundreds and thousands who are ill-prepared to enter the workforce and take on a career. It is challenging enough for these young people to get an entry level position working at McDonald’s because their math and reading skill levels are so low.”
These challenges are exacerbated for Cleveland’s adjudicated youth, those deemed by a court to be delinquent, unruly, dependent, neglected, or abused. Adjudicated youth have parallel problems with respect to their academic skill levels; many come from Cleveland and East Cleveland, both of which have struggling school districts.
“We are seeing dozens of high-school aged adjudicated youth with math and reading skills at or below a fifth grade level,” offers Ippolito. “In our first project addressing adjudicated youth, the Youth Offender Demonstration project, we not only provided the customary GED proficiency education, but we also had to develop the pre-GED skill set as a basis for this. The low level of academic skills in this group is just startling.”
In an attempt to stop the cycle of poverty, EDC’s Cleveland-based staff has partnered with community organizations, faith-based organizations, and social service agencies to address obstacles of entering the workforce faced by the poorest of Ohio’s youth.
The VOICES project stems from EDC’s work in youth development dating back several years, offering in-school and out-of-school youth with services to enhance their life skills, employability, career training, job placement, and job training. Funded by the Department of Labor, previous projects include the Youth Fair Chance Project and the Youth Opportunity project. This work assisted youth in preparing resumes, completing job applications, conducting job searches, role playing and preparation for interviews, and skills in personal presentation. Life skills curricula sought to offer youth a “softer skill” set, providing them grounding in values, decision-making, conflict resolution, and lessons about punctuality and attendance.
“In many youth programs, if a young person is interested in finding a job, the program staff will often do this for them,” explains Ippolito. “It’s more important, and in some ways harder to challenge youth, to stand back and create an activity where they do this for themselves.”
Research has demonstrated that young people thrive when they have a strong relationship with a caring adult. Such relationships provided through mentoring can have positive outcomes for troubled youth, reducing the incidence of alcohol and drug initiation, improving school attendance, and leading to improvements in academics, peer relationships, and self-confidence.
Mentors in the VOICES program agreed to serve as “full-time volunteers,” defined as devoting 40 hours a week for up to a year for which they received a nominal stipend. The project is funded by the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal entity that funds AmeriCorps and other national volunteer service programs. Each VOICES mentor is assigned 5 “mentees” who are identified by both a YDC social worker and a teacher from YDC’s on-site school. Mentors are supervised by YOU staff who oversee their plans for engaging youth in the most effective way possible.
In many respects, the VOICES program aims to promote growth in both the mentors and the youth served by their volunteerism. This dual benefit is paying off in unforeseen ways. As a result of their superior mentoring performance, two of the five full-time VOICES mentors have been offered permanent positions at Youth Opportunities Unlimited. With two years of the VOICES program complete, YOU has secured additional funding from the Cleveland Foundation to continue this work.
Originally published on September 1, 2006