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Mentoring Gang-Involved Youth: How Roca, Inc. Combines Mentoring and Services in a High-Risk Intervention Model

Grantee: Roca, Inc.
Grantee Type: Adult Mentoring
Grantee Year: FY 2010
Location: Springfield, MA

By Crystal Garland, Council of State Governments Justice Center

January is National Mentoring Month. Because mentoring is a major part of many reentry programs, we are spotlighting a grantee that uses peer mentoring to help individuals return from prison.

Roca, Inc., a Massachusetts-based nonprofit that works with high-risk youth, received a FY 2010 Second Chance Act adult mentoring grant to coordinate mentoring services for gang-involved young adult males (between the ages of 18 and 24) who have substance abuse needs and are returning to Springfield. Roca, Inc.’s Springfield Community Mentoring Project (SCMP) is coordinated in partnership with the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department (HCSD), which provides staff who co-coordinate the initiative. The HCSD, along with SCMP project partners the City of Springfield and the Springfield Police Department, also reach out to service providers in the community who can offer workforce training and job placement services in addition to other resources and supports.

SCMP recognizes that many of their participants lack ready access to healthy relationships that can support their growth into more productive members of their communities. Therefore, SCMP makes three types of mentors available to its participants: volunteers who provide one-on-one mentoring that is supplemented with group-based supportive services, staff case managers who are called “transformational mentors,” and transitional employment workplace mentors. All participants receive volunteer and transformational mentors and those assigned to transitional employment receive a workplace mentor as well. By keeping these high-risk young people engaged in positive activities, these mentor relationships provide them the support and resources necessary to successfully support their transition from a detention facility to the community.

Volunteer Mentors and Group-Based Services

SCMP enlists two types of community mentors, which it calls “senior” and “volunteer” mentors. Assigned to multiple participants, senior mentors may include individuals who served time in prison and have successfully reentered the community and now provide a model for living a clean and sober life. Knowledgeable about community resources, senior mentors provide support to “transformational mentors,” or paid Roca case managers, and may assist or instruct group sessions as well. Group sessions allow youth participating in the program to serve as role models for each other and learn from each other’s challenges and successes.

Volunteer mentors are drawn from the local community and may also include formerly incarcerated individuals. They are selected and trained by a “Mentoring Program Coordinator,” a member of the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department who is responsible for managing the project’s volunteer mentors. The Mentoring Program Coordinator looks for volunteer mentors who can provide participants with a picture of a positive, productive lifestyle and work with them one on one before and after release.

Staff Who Provide Case Management and Mentoring

Assessed as moderate and high risk, SCMP program participants require intensive case management to support their transition to the community. This means that a strong relationship with their case manager is critical to their success. SCMP’s mentorship model provides case managers – paid staff members who are called transformational mentors. In this role, they work with participants one on one to connect them to services, apply for benefits, and generally help them navigate the various systems and bureaucracies with which they may come in contact. They also act as positive adult role models to help participants make better decisions and control their tendencies towards violent and/or illegal behavior. While community volunteers provide mentoring before and after release in a one-on-one setting, transformational mentors maintain a small caseload of participants after release. Transformational mentors provide life skills training and make appropriate referrals for other services as needed. These may include services to substance abuse treatment providers, mental health (including anger management) professionals, healthcare professionals, and parenting coaches.

Transitional Employment and Workplace Mentors

While studies show that stable employment supports successful prisoner reentry to the community, many individuals face barriers finding gainful employment, including educational deficiencies, few marketable job skills, and limited employment experience. Roca, Inc., SCMP’s coordinating agency, operates a transitional employment program that helps youth with no formal job skills practice the skills necessary to find and retain employment. SCMP participants are assigned transitional jobs and paired with a workplace mentor – the supervising worker of the job site who is also a paid Roca staff member– who not only teaches them new skills but also helps them develop the “soft skills,” or positive workplace behaviors, integral to retaining a job. This in turn improves the likelihood that the young person will abide by the rules and avoid causing trouble.

Understanding that an important component of the project must include the ability to turn failure into learning, SCMP’s transitional jobs program allows for individuals to be re-hired. Rather than kicking youth out of the program when they fail to behave appropriately in the work place or perform their assigned duties, SCMP instead re-enrolls them in programming. For example, an individual who is not successful at an assigned job may be referred for vocational training; he or she must successfully complete the course before qualifying again for placement in the transitional employment program. This system acknowledges the fact that participants may relapse multiple times. On average, participants can take up to two years before they complete 60 uninterrupted days of work.

To learn more about Roca, Inc’s SCMP and the high-risk intervention model they employ to work with gang-involved youth in their community, please visit: http://rocainc.org/