Oakland, Calif. – Melissa said if she was in trouble and could only make one phone call, it would without a doubt be to Krystina Stephens an Advocate with Alameda County’s Youth Advocate Programs (YAP), Inc. Melissa has been a YAP program participant for four months after entering the youth justice system.
Melissa relies on Stephens for everything from transportation to basic needs, to helping her re-enroll in school so she can complete her education and gain employment. The 18-year-old says Stephens serves as her personal “therapist.” While YAP does connect program participants and their parents/guardians and family members to economic, educational, and emotional tools to achieve positive goals, Stephens is not a professional counselor; but is trained to help program participants see their strengths while connecting them with resources needed to nurture them.
“If my life was on the line and I had to call one person to save my life I am calling her,” Melissa said. “I know she is going to pick up. It doesn’t matter what time it is.”
YAP is a national nonprofit in 33 states and Washington, D.C., that partners with youth justice, child welfare, behavioral health, and other systems to provide community-based alternatives to youth incarceration and congregate residential placements. YAP also partners with public safety systems to combine the nonprofit’s unique wraparound services approach with other evidence-based models to reduce violence. YAP began delivering services in Alameda County in late 2019, partnering with the Alameda County Probation Department to provide services in youths’ homes and communities as an alternative to extended detention.
“Authentic and trusting relationships, undying support, and love, is what strengthens human connection,” said Alameda County Assistant Probation Officer Brian K. Ford. “YAP has all these attributes wrapped into a service delivery model that works – and that’s the reason young people experience success in this program.”
YAP’s mostly neighborhood-based Advocates are trained to champion for youths and their families and work with them to develop individualized service plans. Advocates spend 9-10 hours a week with program participants, getting to know them and their families, familiarizing themselves with barriers that might interfere with their pursuit of positive goals, and connecting them with tools to overcome those challenges.
“Before YAP I was miserable,” Melissa said. “I didn’t have a lot of support or help.”
Stephens has been with YAP since October 2021 and gets misty-eyed speaking about Melissa and the other young people she helps.
“Melissa is super sweet. I worry about her. I look at them like they’re my kids. I am invested in all of them,” Stephens said. “Some days I go home, and my heart is super full and some days I go home, and my heart strings are tugged. But being a YAP Advocate has also helped me be a better mom to my kids.”
When Stephens was introduced to Melissa, she hadn’t attended school in weeks and was having some trouble at home. Stephens immediately started picking Melissa up in the morning to take her to school, developed a relationship with her probation officer, and through a translator, started communicating with her mom who doesn’t speak English.
Stephens says her own upbringing helps her connect to troubled youth. She grew up in Antioch, in California’s East Bay, in a single parent home with three other siblings and said she was exposed to drug abuse, alcoholism and domestic violence.
“I am pretty much the only one who survived the addictions,” Stephens said. “With all my life experiences, I just want to make a difference.”
Alameda County YAP Director Timeka McGowan said Stephens goes above and beyond for participants, even paying their cell phone bills so she can continue to reach them. Even as YAP budgets include this kind of basic needs funding, providing community services using the nonprofit’s evidence-based model comes at a fraction of the cost of youth incarceration.
“Krystina works for hours with the (participants) and they love her,” McGowan said. “We have a great relationship. Because she does so much, sometimes I have to ask her, ‘Are you ok? Do you need self-care?’ I am grateful to have someone on my team like that.”
For Mother’s Day, Stephens gave Melissa $20 so she could get her mom a gift.
“I cut out the gym for this job to make time to do this,” Stephens added. “I think it takes a special person to do it. You need life experiences, passion, and love for doing this kind of work.”
For more information about Youth Advocate Programs, visit yapinc.org.