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‘They matter.’ Charlotte program explores root causes of violence to help at-risk youths

Charlotte Observer - 4/4/2022

Mekayla Rodgers says she understands that without the Juvenile Court Intervention Program, she’d be “in the streets” or “locked up.”

After two stints in juvenile detention, the 18-year-old Rodgers decided to make changes in her life and set goals for herself — inspired by one person in particular.

“I want to go into the military, and I want to go to school to do hair, and I just want to be a good mother for my son,” said Rodgers, who has a 6-month-old.

The diversion program, started two years ago by the Mecklenburg Council of Elders, is helping her work toward those goals. Rodgers is working toward earning a GED, and she’s learning life skills.

Camille Stephens, her teacher, says Rodgers has come a long way since joining the program.

“She desires to ... be the best mother that she can be to her child, and so she’s doing that, and that’s a blessing for herself and for her child as well.”

The Council of Elders, a nonprofit network of organizations that work in criminal justice, launched the program with just 45 students in an effort to create “viable citizens.”

This year, the program hopes to reach 150 students, ages 8-21, executive director Maria Macon said.

The mentoring program operates out of the former Plaza Road Academy, near W.T. Harris Boulevard in northeast Charlotte. One of Macon’s clients allowed the council to use their lease. Instructors have repurposed old classrooms to suit their needs, including a fitness studio, a martial arts dojo, and a room covered in paint-splattered tarps where teens are learning how to paint houses and restore furniture.

The expansion plans come amid other efforts to help local at-risk youth in Charlotte, which have drawn praise from Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Chief Johnny Jennings.

The biggest problem in Charlotte right now is young people getting guns and using them, Macon said.

At least 24 guns have been found on Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools campuses this academic year. And, at least three teenagers 17 and under have been killed due to gun violence, CMPD data show.

Anger management, adverse childhood experiences and trauma are some of the root causes of the violence, Macon said, and the program focuses on them.

The diversion program works with judges, social workers and the community to help the students cope with adverse experiences, Macon said.

“When you talk to many of the young people that are in jail or in court and waiting to be sentenced, something happened in their childhood that has triggered an adverse thought in their mind. And they enter into these gangs, into shooting,” Macon said.

Helping them understand themselves

For Stephens, the diversion program allows her to fulfill a passion: working with kids and shaping the future.

Stephens, whose Locked Out Love group works within the jail and juvenile detention center, teaches moral recantation therapy and Work Smart, which focuses on soft skills for the workplace.

The recantation therapy class is a 12-step program that focuses on helping young people realize and understand where trauma begins, where their life is now and was in the past, and what their goals could be for the future.

“What I hope kids get out of the program is to be able to utilize the tools that are provided to keep the recidivism down to nothing,” Stephens said.

Tysha Pressley’s Abusive Childhood Experiences class tries to help students understand what trauma is and how to alleviate its symptoms.

Pressley, a licensed clinical mental health counselor, said a typical classroom period lasts about 30 minutes. She starts by asking students about their day, then she may teach them a little about trauma followed by a mindfulness activity like yoga.

If there’s one thing Pressley wants her students to learn from her class is that they matter.

“It’s really an amazing time, just coming together and helping them to kind of understand themselves a little bit more,” she said. “That’s what I really hope that they get out of it. I really hope that they get that, number one, [...] they matter, and they’re not just one dimensional, they are three-dimensional beings.”

Pressley said sometimes when society looks at youth violence in the community, it just looks at behavior, not at the root of the behavior. She believes addressing trauma and generational thought systems is the way to tackle violence in the community.

Change the mindset

Some of the program’s classes are hands-on and include occupational training, volunteer work and martial arts. Others are more introspective and focus on soft skills for the workplace, anger management, and healing childhood trauma.

Lorenzo Steele, a former Rikers Island guard, shows his photos from inside the New York jail facility and discusses life inside a prison with his students — but don’t call his class a “Scared Straight” program. Steele instead hopes to help his students make informed choices.

Many teens don’t understand the consequences their actions can have, Steele said. He created an art series and podcast called “Behind These Prison Walls” that shows what a life in prison can look like, from being arrested, to living in a 6-by-8-foot cell, to being slashed with a razor blade in an attack.

“So basically, what we do is to give them that necessary information in the hope that they change their mindset from the criminal activity, such as gang violence, and gun violence, and, you know, drug abuse and, and drug use,” Steele said.

Rodgers, the teenage mother, said she used to have this mindset.

“I never planned on changing, but it really was my baby that made me change,” Rodgers said.

Juvenile Court Intervention Program

The Juvenile Court Intervention Program run by the Mecklenburg Council of Elders offers students ages 8-21 several classes and parent talk therapy. These include: abusive childhood experiences, adverse childhood experiences, mental health conditioning, community service, Work Smart, anger management, Fitness Discipline, Chronic Condition Self-Management, occupational skills

This year’s program started April 4 and will run for six months. The program is free, but a community referral is required. For more information contact Maria Macon at 980-202-9149, or Angela Whitmore at 662-744-0673.

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