Youth Empowerment Project

New Orleans, LA – Community IMPACT Series: Youth Empowerment Project Nov. 19, 2009

For many young New Orleanians, growing up means maneuvering an environment of pervasive poverty, violence, illiteracy, drugs and bleak personal economic prospects. These are the kids commonly dubbed "at risk," and often they find very little help or guidance at home.

But the local nonprofit Youth Empowerment Project helps fill that void of support, and demonstrates that risks needn't become devastating realities.

"It provides a safety net for a lot of youth that we serve."

That's the project's case management director Glennis Scott Sr.

"We think about those everyday issues and concerns that we all face as adults going to work, obstacles that we encounter, and having someone to provide the true essence for issues being from mental health to substance, to transportation, day care, I mean when you think about the community pieces that are missing in a lot of these young people's lives, that's the true essence, that's the wrap-around services we provide for many of our youth."

The nonprofit was originally formed in Central City in 2004 to help youth returning to New Orleans from juvenile corrections facilities. It has developed a host of other services, including a literacy program and mentoring for youth ages 8 to 14.

Things got harder for a lot of youth in New Orleans after the Katrina levee failures swept away already tenuous community resources and scrambled social and family networks. The Youth Empowerment Project has responded by expanding its programming further.

Its newest initiative is called The Village, and like a village it is composed of many related parts. It's a year-long program, designed for students aged 16 to 18 who have already found trouble with the law, and who are referred to the group by the courts. Heavy doses of literacy help and GED preparation are part of agenda. But since the risks students face extend far beyond academics, so too do the Village's services.

Each student is assigned a Youth Advocate, an adult mentor from their own community who provides intensive daily counseling. This advocate is someone who visits them at home and school, someone who participates in behavior counseling and in celebrations, someone who makes sure parents attend important appointments, who does crisis interventions, gets them to sports practice or music lessons, takes them to tutoring once a week and enrolls them in summer camps. In essence, it is an intensive, wrap-around experience that exposes kids to new opportunities helps them form a bond with a positive, encouraging adult figure who becomes a continuous presence in their lives. Here's Melissa Sawyer, co-founder and executive director of the Youth Empowerment Project:

"We like to see these kids not as numbers, not as they've actually completed this program, but that, like all of us, lives are a work in progress. So I think we try to prepare and empower young people, to give them the skill sets to make good, health choices, to continue on their own path for success, to head to whatever they're looking for, and that they know they always have this organization of caring and vested people to make that happen."

Learn more about the Youth Empowerment Project and its Village program at For WWNO, I'm Ian McNulty.