In just a few weeks, T reaches a critical crossroads. He just turned 18 and will soon be released from Loysville Youth Development Center after serving more than four years. Loysville is operated by PA’s Bureau of Juvenile Justice Services.
A Philadelphia native, T has been in residential placement off and on since he was 11.
“I was the oldest of four and we lived in the projects,” he said. “My mother had gotten laid off and I didn’t want to see her struggle. My dad wasn’t there. He was in and out of prison. At the time, he had 10 to 20 years and my uncle, my dad’s brother, had 10-20 years,” T said. “By the end of the month, there was nothing left from what we got from food stamps. Someone had to put food in our stomachs – and I was the man of the house.”
Hanging with older boys, T said he learned how to hustle for “fast money.” By the time he was 11, he knew how to drive, a necessary skill for stealing cars and getting them to chop shops to negotiate for cash payments. Among T’s friends were gang members who eventually made him one of them. T said shortly after his initiation, members of a rival gang jumped him at his middle school. A couple of days later, when T showed up at school packing a gun, he was met by sheriff’s deputies.
Loysville was not T’s first long-term out-of-home placement. Before that, he spent 10 months at Saint Gabriel’s Hall, a behavior health treatment facility about an hour’s drive northwest of his Philadelphia neighborhood. Due to behavioral issues there, he spent several more months at Wordsworth Academy near Pittsburgh.
“When I got out, I was living with an older cousin, who was like my foster mother. She was good; and she gave me an allowance. But at my mom’s, there was no food in the house. I told myself, I’m not going to stay here. I’m the man of the house; I’m going to grind.”
In his final summer at Loysville, T was introduced to YAPWORX, a workforce development curriculum designed by Youth Advocate Programs (YAP), Inc. and recently offered through the Pennsylvania Bureau of Juvenile Justice Services and Office of Vocational Rehabilitation (OVR).
An innovative, experiential approach to helping people who face the greatest barriers to employment, YAPWORX is designed to be offered as one of many tools YAP provides through its traditional community-based alternative institutional placement programs. YAP’s comprehensive community-based model matches individuals with neighborhood-based mentors who serve as advocates for youth and their families, empowering them through connections and resources near their homes that provide tools for them to succeed. The Bureau implemented YAPWORX at Loysville as a first-step towards developing new approaches as part of its commitment to help youth transition safely and productively back to their communities.
“YAPWORX is focused on helping youth and adults who have a high risk of falling through the cracks when seeking employment. We empower individuals with tools that help them build from their individual strengths to identify the right career, look for a job and manage issues they might face after landing one,” said Lori Burrus, one of YAP’s national YAPWORX leaders. “While the Loysville program does not replace our community-based model, it represents the Bureau’s commitment and YAP's mission to ensuring that youth who face significant barriers to employment get intensive, personalized resources needed to succeed once they complete their time in placement.”
The cottage where T is housed is one of the first Loysville selected to participate in the eight-week YAPWORX program. From June 20 – Aug 15, except July 4 of this year, YAP spent an hour every Wednesday at Loysville preparing T and his cottage mates for the realities of what’s needed to become successful in a variety of jobs for which they would qualify based on their skills and experience. In addition to the basics, YAPWORX gave the youth opportunities to role play and experience scenarios that until then were brand new to T.
“I wasn’t thinking about the future. I’m thinking this is not for me, I’m never going on an interview. I’m going to stick to what I know best,” he recalls telling himself after day one.
T eventually began to trust the YAPWORX facilitators and see things differently. “They were honest about the training. They told us so much, how to go into different types of interviews and present yourself. It was new to me.”
Consistent with YAPWORX in communities, the Loysville curriculum focused on each youth’s individual strengths, enabling facilitators to build trust as they empowered the young men with tools needed to transition into the workforce. Post-training evaluations indicated YAPWORX also gave the youth at Loysville hope.
YAPWORX helped T appreciate the value of the work ethic he’d formed before and during his residential placement. At Loysville, he worked to repay all his restitution debt with jobs ranging from laundry to kitchen and janitorial work. In fact, he maxed out on the amount of money youth can earn while in placement.
It wasn’t long before T was looking forward to the Wednesday sessions. He especially enjoyed an exercise where he and the other youth created posters with magazine photos. On top, they pasted pictures of people wearing the type of clothing they might wear in their neighborhoods on a non-work day. On the bottom, they pasted photos of the kinds of outfits they might wear to interviews for various types of jobs or while at work in those trades and occupations.
“I’m liking this,” he recalled thinking. T and his friends also participated in an exercise where they styled one another for different types of job interviews. “That ‘jawn’ [Philadelphia street-slang pronoun] was funny.”
Beyond finding the YAPWORX experiential exercises enjoyable, T said they taught him a lot about the importance of perceptions.
For example, YAPWORX presented a scenario where a young woman flipped out at work when she couldn’t find her purse. “Afterwards, she got arrested for assaulting someone,” T said. “It made me reminisce about the time when I was grinding and robbing. “The lesson for me was don’t let the small stuff blow up and get you off your square. One little slip up can take you off course.”
Through YAPWORX, T also confronted his long- held beliefs about earning money. “They did a chart -- all the money a person made selling drugs; then the money he would have had with a minimum wage job. All that time, you could make more money without getting locked up and having cops on your behind. That was an eye opener,” he said. “It’s better to take the hard way out than the easy way.”
In addition to completing YAPWORX, T has been playing catch up with his education. Fifth grade was the last full year of school he’d completed before his time in residential facilities.
“He recovered more credits towards his diploma than anyone else. And he had some very challenging English classes,” said Department of Human Services Bureau of Juvenile Justice Services Career & Technical Training Specialist Randy Goshorn.
T has never felt more prepared. “I’m on a tight timeline,” he said. “I’m going to be an adult. I have to make better decisions.”
The Bureau of Juvenile Justice Services and YAP are working on making YAPWORX a part of a re-entry program to ensure that T and other young people have continued support when they complete their time in residential care.
“Hopefully, this is the beginning of a productive relationship where youth in our state come out as the winners,” Goshorn said. “Delivering services to youth with the hope of them becoming citizens that make positive contributions to their own families and communities is what we do.”
"YAP's main focus is working intensely with youth in the community so young people like T never have to serve time,” Burrus said. “With our community-based programs, youth access resources like YAPWORX and other tools that address substance abuse, mental illness and basic needs to set them on the right track, avoiding the need for residential placement."