Jan. 2, 2019 -- This January, National Mentoring Month, Youth Advocate Programs (YAP), Inc. celebrates all who volunteer their time to help others. At the same time, YAP is raising awareness of its own unique brand of paid mentorship, which serves individuals and families with complex needs involved with justice and social services systems. The 43-year-old YAP model is receiving increased recognition for being a cost-effective community-based alternative to youth incarceration, behavioral health institutions and child welfare placements.
Recruited from the neighborhoods of the individuals they serve, YAP Advocates are mentors and more who empower youth and families with individualized toolkits that help them to identify, nurture and share their strengths. YAP serves 19,000 young people and families in 22 states and the District of Columbia. YAP’s Advocate mentors complete a nine-course accredited curriculum and work under the supervision of area directors. Collaborating with their teammates, these paid mentors also connect individuals and families they serve with community resources to reinforce their foundation.
Born in Valley Stream, N.Y., Melissa Ortiz had spent more than half her life in foster care before she turned three. That’s about the time she returned to live with her mother, who at the time was at Family House, a Norristown, Pa. halfway house for parents dealing with substance abuse. Her father, who, like her mom, struggled with substance abuse and mental health-related issues, was in a separate Pa. residential treatment facility. Ultimately the family was back together in Pennsylvania where they remained until Melissa was five and they moved to Linden, N.J.
“After my brother and sister were born, my role often changed from child to parent figure,” Melissa said. “My parents did the best they could. My father is the poster child of someone with addiction. He was a great guy who taught me a lot about emotions and self-esteem. When people talk about addiction, it’s heartbreaking. These are human beings who are struggling.”
When she was a high school junior, her family moved to Brick, N.J. a suburban area on the shore, where for the first time, Melissa saw stark differences between other kids and herself. Accustomed to the ethnic and economic diversity of her old neighborhood, she tried but never felt like she belonged in Brick.
“It was a culture shock. It was very difficult. To come to the Shore, I couldn’t find my way. It was really difficult. I’d been a straight A student before. Now I was miserable at school and depressed. I ended up dropping out.”
Melissa earned a GED, started and withdrew from several community college classes as she looked desperately for what was next. She was up late one night when she saw a YAP public service advertisement on a community access cable channel recruiting paid mentors to work as Advocates for youth who might otherwise be institutionalized. She applied and got the job.
“I worked with kids in Asbury Park and Neptune. I was just a little older than the young people I mentored. But I was able to help them, and it felt good. In many ways, being a YAP Advocate also saved me. YAP saw my gifts and I was then able to see them, myself, and apply them to my work to help others. With the way I grew up, I was in training the whole time. I was built for this.”
Melissa was promoted several times, eventually landing the position of program director. “I felt self-conscious about being a director without a degree. Fred Fogg, my supervisor, who’d also started as a YAP Advocate, would say ‘it doesn’t matter; you’re the expert in the room.’ Now looking back, that’s what propelled me to really believing in myself,” she said.
While working with youth to nurture their strengths, Melissa said her teammates also built one another up. When her father died, 18 of her 21 staff members made the trip from New Brunswick to Queens, NY, to attend the funeral. Her co-workers also supported her when she lost her mother. Teammates attended her wedding and celebrated the births of each of her three children.
“After my parents passed away, I knew I needed to go to school. I got my BA and went to grad school, too. Now I have my MSW and will soon have my LCSW [Licensed Clinical Social Worker] certification.”
Melissa said most of the hundreds of youths she and her team have mentored over the years are poster children for YAP’s effectiveness. She said one, in particular, exemplifies the success of the YAP mentors and more model – a young man named Abner, who was assigned to a LaQuan Rankins, a fellow YAP Advocate.
LaQuan Rankins and Abner
Now 33, LaQuan became a YAP Advocate shortly after he graduated high school. He’d agreed to look out for the little brother of a friend who had gone away to college. The friend’s mother was so impressed with how well her son responded to LaQuan, that she suggested that he apply for a job to mentor high-risk youth as a YAP Advocate mentor. Rankins applied and got the job. While he now works full-time as a school resource officer, he has remained a part-time YAP Advocate.
By the time LaQuan met Abner 10 years ago, he had worked with dozens of youth in YAP’s juvenile justice alternative incarceration diversion program. Rankins understood the tough exterior, tattoos, gang signifying, mean looks, and stubborn willfulness of youth convinced that the familiarity of the streets was a better gamble than selling out for an unknown, uncomfortable, seemingly untenable alternative.
Everyone who mattered to Abner had been a product or victim of the same influences that landed him in and out of juvenile detention since he was 14. YAP Advocates are trained to see the positive in the individuals and families they serve. In Abner, Rankins saw resilience.
“I told him, you don’t have to be the smartest kid; you just have to find and focus on something you like. For Abner, that was any and everything about cars. He was also a leader who had the ability to encourage other kids in the program, particularly the toughest ones.”
While LaQuan mentored Abner, he reassured his mentee’s mother and shared information about resources that were available to her and her other children. “She really appreciated what I did for Abner. She’d say, ‘thank you for looking after him.’ And I’d always tell her, ‘You have a great son.’ “
Abner said LaQuan believed in him when he didn’t believe in himself. “There were times I didn’t give two cents. I was hardheaded. I’d come in some Saturday mornings after staying out all night smelling like liquor. I wanted to give up so many times. I believed there was no way for me but the streets. But Quan wouldn’t let me give up. I didn’t have my father in my life and my mom was a victim of circumstances,” Abner said. “Quan was like a father figure. He was special to me. I used to try to walk out the door. He’d say, ‘No. sit your little butt down.’”
Abner recalls LaQuan’s co-workers, Melissa and other YAP Advocates working together, supporting one another while also being there for him and other kids in the program.
“I was lost. LaQuan and Melissa would pinpoint things, describe things to me and show me alternatives.”
LaQuan talked to Abner’s teachers, spoke up for him at court appearances and coached him through day-to-day difficulties.
“I started enjoying the program. I liked it. I would hear everyone’s story. I tried to be better. And I’d talk to the other kids telling them they could do better, too. I’d tell them, ‘That gang s$!t don’t work around here.’”
LaQuan showed up for Abner’s prom night and high school graduation and helped his mentee celebrate when he completed the YAP program. Months later, Abner continued to drop by the YAP office to say hello and give pep talks to program youth. It was on one of those occasions that Abner’s relationship with YAP took a different turn.
“We were having a perfect day. I was hanging out with the kids eating pizza and I got a phone call. They were saying there was a drug raid at my house. They took my mom and locked up my brothers in another county. I started crying hard. I got a second call from my little sister. She said they shot my dog. He was dead. I flipped out,” Abner remembers. “I wanted to go to the police and hurt them because they took everything from me. Quan wouldn’t let me leave. There were lots of phone calls back and forth. Quan wanted everyone to know I was with him and doing what I was supposed to do. But I’d lost everything, my entire family, my dog, our home. I was so mad, so hurt. I wanted to turn back to the streets.”
Melissa said if it weren’t for Abner being at the YAP office with LaQuan that day, she’s not sure what would have become of Abner. Abner said the same thing.
While YAP rules prohibit Advocates from letting program youth stay at their homes, LaQuan invited Abner, now age 20 and no longer in the program, to stay with him until he could find more permanent housing. LaQuan’s mother and father, who already knew Abner, made him feel completely welcome at their home, too, especially during the holidays.
“They made me feel like a part of the family,” Abner said. “Quan’s mom is so beautiful. She has a beautiful soul.”
“Abner’s like her other son,” LaQuan said. “He spent the holidays with us and everything.”
Abner said LaQuan’s compassion has been constant, that he continued to support him when his brothers and mother returned to the community.
Today, nearly a decade after Abner’s introduction to YAP, he has a job as a cable contractor and works hard to stay on the straight and narrow. “Since finishing the program and high school. I haven’t seen the back of a police car or been in handcuffs. And I don’t intend to.”
Whenever he can, Abner said he tries to uplift others. “If someone is depressed, I try to turn that frown into a smile. I like to brighten up everyone’s day. If I can change one person’s life, to create a different path, I do it; that’s my job.”
Abner said he’s still not where he needs or wants to be, but his experiences with LaQuan and YAP taught him that he has what it takes to go far. “I know I have a beautiful heart, a beautiful soul. No matter my background, that doesn’t define who I am.”
When Abner needs a reminder, he knows he has a friend, a mentor and more. “Any time I get down, I still call Quan. And all these years later, he’s always there. He’s done so much for me. He saved me.”
Recognition of YAP’s Effectiveness
An evaluation of Advocate, Intervene, Mentor (AIM), a court-mandated youth justice program using the YAP prototype, found more than 90 percent of AIM participants avoided felony re-arrest within a year of enrollment, far exceeding the 60 percent target. The evaluation, conducted by the Urban Institute, was released this fall by New York City’s Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity. Chicago’s Choose to Change (C2C) crime prevention program where YAP partners with Children’s Home & Aid and the University of Chicago Crime Lab, has had similar success. The Crime Lab reported 18 months after implementing the program, arrests for violent crime among participants had been cut in half; and most participants who had previously dropped out of school were attending school again. In the first 18 months of YAP’s 24-month pay-for-success pilot in Marion County, Indiana, juvenile justice bed days were reduced by 6,893 – double the projected 3,298, representing a savings of $1.6 million, more than double projected cost savings.
For more information on YAP and to support its programs, please go to YAPInc.org.