Helping Youth At Risk, One Day At A Time
“What you do in the four years between 13 and 17 will determine what you do for the rest of your life,” Claudette C. Faison (pictured above) says to a wide-eyed group of 28 young women assembled for a three-day camp marking the official kick-off for Woman to Woman, a year-long intensive mentoring program with pioneering organization Youth At Risk.
Claudette’s words come from experience. She’s been Executive Director of Youth At Risk since 1985, committed to transforming the lives of disadvantaged youth who exhibit maladaptive behaviors such as truancy, violence, gang membership, physical and verbal violence and at-risk sexual activity. As a first-time mentor, Claudette’s words strike a deep chord within me also. Reflecting on my own troubled teenage years, I’m aware the journey the girls are about to take is a difficult but crucial one.
“The Woman to Woman program defies statistics,” Claudette says. “You will get your GED within one year of the program. If you’re living in temporary housing, you will become employed. You will not have an unwanted pregnancy. This will happen for you this year.” Her words are not simply lip service. National data indicates just 30 percent of teen mothers complete high school and 31 percent birth a second child within two years of their first. In YAR’s Woman to Woman program, over a four year period, 90 percent of participants remained in school, graduated or are in the process of obtaining their GED. Of those that graduated, 40 percent have gone on to college or vocational school and a staggering 91 percent deterred the birth of a second child.
The program is voluntary, for young ladies wanting and needing to change the direction of their lives. Claudette emphasizes no one is made to participate. “If you guys didn’t ‘call’ us, we wouldn’t be here,” she tells the mentees. “And how did you call us?” she asks one directly. The girl, no more than 16, replies, “Through my circumstances.” Making sure the girls know they have the power in the program, Claudette continues. “I call that you being ‘in prayer.’ This isn’t a religious program, but we use powerful words so we can truly see how life works. You asked, and something heard you. It was called, in this case, the Woman to Woman program. And I couldn’t have put this all together if it wasn’t for you.”
A significant number of mentors begin to develop relationships with their mentees months prior to the camp, after a “matching ceremony” held at YAR’s offices in the Financial District. The bonds shared by each pair (a small group posed for this photo by the lake at the beginning of the camp) are already incredibly strong by the time the camp starts and are essential to the success of “unlocking the futures” of these women, as the program states.
Sessions during the camp, held at the YMCA’s Greenkill Retreat Center, are intense. One early session focuses on how “deep” a young, impressionable woman finds herself in dangerous waters as she allows peer pressure to take over her adolescent years. After a role-playing exercise, Claudette asks each girl to line up against a wall in order of how “deep” they are in terms of their issues, particularly their existing and non-existent relationships with their parents. It’s emotion-fueled, to say the least, watching each girl—some defiant, some already broken—rank herself on a scale from barely surviving to severely scarred.
“I’ve been doing this a very long time—longer than each of you have been alive, for over 25 years,” Claudette says. “I don’t want to see any of your kids in this program. And think—if you’re in deep water now, where is your baby?” These are tough words to swallow and some girls quickly take them as an insult, quietly remarking their children will be taken care of, no matter what. With emotions running high (and tears streaming down most of our faces) Diana Ross’ haunting “It’s My Turn” plays as the girls write in their journals exactly what they will do when they get their “turn.”
Other sessions focus on simple analogies, like basketball. For example, we’re taught each of us has a positive “player” and a negative “opponent” inside. Our “opponent” is when we “win at losing” and our “player” is when we “win at winning.” As my mentee Indira, 16 and mother to two-month old Jayden, (pictured with me below) explains it, “Winning at losing is when you’re succeeding at doing something that will eventually harm you. Winning at winning is when you do something for the better of yourself to truly be successful.”
Throughout the weekend, the mentees become more and more receptive to Claudette’s tough scenarios and questions. Her language is direct and to the point; she doesn’t squirm around the most difficult subjects, a winning formula in the end. She explains to the group that the hardest part of doing what she does is convincing the girls, many who’ve been sexually molested, that they must take responsibility for how their lives are turning out in order for them to heal and move forward.
“Only the thing that created you knows YOU,” Claudette says during the final session. This focus is one of YAR’s most important testaments: honoring yourself as “Word.” “Word” is explained as the first traumatic event that happened to the girls allowing them to believe that’s what they are, or would be, for the rest of their lives—incidents of emotional, physical and sexual abuse. They’ve all been extremely good at honoring this “word” and now it’s time to begin to create a new one to honor and live by. “You don’t have the power or ability to name yourself, because you didn’t create who you are,” Claudette says firmly. “You must know that.” Building on this theme, each mentor is directed to guide the mentees into creating a new code to live by, one in defiance of their past selves with three defining characteristics. Each girl writes her new “self” on a wooden board, adding negative and positive factors that will determine whether or not she will achieve this throughout the program’s year-long course. With the entire group cheering them on, they break the boards to symbolize their new “FM” (Forward Movement) identity.
Mentee Jenisis Ayala, 18, stood up on the final day of the camp to share her experience of the camp. Her touching words are below:
“People can only believe about you what you believe about yourself. We create our situations by our train of thought. Whatever we lead our self to believe is the type of attention we attract. Unconsciously we carry on through the years with this train of thought, and we continue to attract this negative attention. Until we can see where this train of thought began, we will continue to pursue this lifestyle. When you can pinpoint where your opponent entered your life, only then can you begin to change your life—if you choose to.”
To become a mentor in the Youth At Risk organization (including the young men’s mentor program, Warrior’s Way) please visit nyyouthatrisk.org.