- Associated Press - Saturday, August 2, 2014

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) - Standing before a full room, Alexis lifted her face up from the piece of paper in her hands and spoke into the microphone in front of her.

“I’m life. I’m here,” she read. “I plan on making a difference.”

“I’m here. I’m life,” she continued. “I will be there to help when someone needs saving. I will work hard so my mom can work less.”

The lines of Alexis’ poem, “I am here, I am life,” surged with feelings she said she’s never expressed.

The other girls in the room, all between the ages of 14 and 17, focused on Alexis, nodding their heads as she read on. They understood the feelings that brought life to her words.

“I want to be someone with a good name, and not a lost cause. I am life,” Alexis said.

Power built in her voice as she spoke about moving on from choices she made in the past.

“I am going to lead, not follow,” Alexis said, now barely glancing at the paper in her hands. “I am going to change for the better.”

She stopped, and took one last look over the group.

“I am here. I am life,” she said softly.

It’s not often girls in the Juvenile Justice Center, which provides both pre- and post-adjudication detention for boys and girls younger than 18, get special programming like Project Uncaged. The project, which is only two years old, is a weeklong art program that travels to detention centers using poetry, writing and visual art as a way to teach detained girls better ways to deal with their emotions, director Tasha Golden told the South Bend Tribune (http://bit.ly/UL3eIV ).

It’s actually not often the girls at the JJC get any programming besides their regular schooling, said Peter Morgan, executive director of the JJC. Because of limited resources, it is difficult, Morgan said, to balance the needs of all of those detained. When it comes down to it, there are just more boys to serve, he said.

From 2011 to 2013, only about 18 percent of the JJC’s population each year was female, according to numbers provided by the center.

But gender-specific programming can be an asset in rehabilitation, Morgan said, because boys and girls have different needs to address during their teenage years. Specifically, male and female juvenile offenders typically commit different crimes and have different histories.

Girls, statistically speaking, tend to commit nonviolent, status offenses, which are not crimes if committed by adults, Morgan said.

Unlike some of the boys seen in the JJC, the girls don’t usually pose an immediate danger to the community, he said.

“We build to the situation we have to be most prepared for,” Morgan said. “We are built to be a secure environment for some of the most dangerous juvenile offenders, and that just tends to be boys.”

Having more boys doesn’t make the girls’ needs any less important, he said, but when a majority of the JJC population is male, the system is just built with them in mind.

Boys and girls at the JJC are enrolled in classes run by the South Bend School Corp., he said, but extra programming is needed, especially this summer.

Because of a reduction in funding to Title I, which works to improve academic achievement for the disadvantaged, this is the second year South Bend has been unable to run a summer school program at the JJC, said South Bend schools spokeswoman Sue Coney.

Not having programming brings missed opportunities, Morgan said, and seeing the girls work in Project Uncaged, even just for the one week, he could see a difference in their attitudes.

“It’s easy for juvenile detention to feel like the end,” Morgan said. “This shows that things can change and there can be a positive result.”

Throughout their week in Project Uncaged, the girls worked on writing with project director Golden and on a visual journal with artist Lisa Howe, both from the Cincinnati area. Golden said art is a great way to encourage rehabilitation, so the prompts for writing were all geared toward making the girls think about what they want to be, what they have done wrong and how they can better themselves.

She said it gives them a chance to express their feelings in a safe environment.

For the week she was in the program, Nyesha said, she had a much more positive outlook. It gave her and other girls something productive to focus on, she said, so they weren’t just sitting around picking on one another.

Besides just having fun being creative, Brianna said, the program taught her how to deal with her issues. Before, when she was angry, she said she would have punched a wall or beat up her mother. Now she turns to writing poems.

At the end of the program, parents and guardians were invited into the JJC for a special dinner. The girls decorated the education wing with streamers and an array of Crayola-colored paper chains. They had fruit and sandwiches and even a cake. The dinner gave the girls a chance to read their poetry and share their visual journals with their loved ones and staff of the JJC.

Brianna was the first to jump up and read her poems to the group. She shared “My Mask,” which she said was about being bullied when she was younger, and “To the Future,” which gave advice to future girls coming through the JJC.

Lisa said her daughter Alexis’ poem “I am here, I am life,” was beautiful. Lisa said she was happy her daughter could see there is something better in her and that she can achieve what she works hard at.

Allowing family into the facility to see what the girls accomplished is an important part of the program, Golden said.

“I don’t want them to feel they have a voice, but no one there to listen,” she said.

The group of girls Golden worked with at the JJC, she said, stood out among others she has worked with. From day one, they were open to sharing, something that usually takes a few days to build up to.

Beyond being supportive, Golden said, the girls were also very grateful to her for working with them. Again on the first day, one girl thanked her and told her they always see the boys going to programming, but they never get anything, Golden said. She could tell they were especially thankful and they didn’t want to mess up a rare opportunity.

It all comes down to the lack of funding and awareness, Morgan said, that’s stopping the JJC from providing more to the girls in the system. The mission of the JJC and the juvenile court is to provide appropriate rehabilitation, he said, so offering more programming that meets the unique needs of girls falls in line with their goals. It’s something the staff of the JJC can’t do alone though, he said.

The programming that can be provided is funded through some grants and a small amount allocated into St. Joseph County’s budget, Morgan said. What it really takes is a partnership with the community and dedicated people to make it work.

Project Uncaged was possible thanks to the help of the Community Health Enhancement through Memorial Hospital and the Friends of the Juvenile Justice Center, an organization that collects money to aid the JJC.

The JJC is lucky, Morgan said, to have two nonprofits that started as just good ideas by people who cared, and are now successful enough that they have been incorporated to serve youth in the justice system. Of those two programs though, the girls can participate in only The 360 Project.

Implemented last year, The 360 Project allows detained youth to train shelter dogs, teaching them things like empathy and patience while making the dogs more adoptable by being properly trained, according to the program’s website.

The other program, Reading for Life, started about seven years ago working with youth on probation in the Day Reporting program and as a diversion step for those heading down the wrong path, said Alesha Serocynski, the program’s executive director.

Reading for Life uses in-depth book discussions for what Serocynski calls character education.

Because of a limited budget, Serocynski said, officials had to choose to offer the program to either the boys or the girls. Because the two groups must remain separated in detention, she said, it takes twice the staff and resources to serve both.

Because the type of crimes male offenders typically commit, people tend to view them having a longer road to rehabilitation, she said.

“If you have to choose from a success perspective, not that we were doing poorly with the girls” in diversion programs, Serocynski said, “the boys have so much further to go.”

Two years into having Reading for Life in detention and Serocynski said she is still struggling to offer the program to the girls. In the last three months alone, she said, she had three grant applications denied.

All of those detained in the JJC have access to a Saturday bookmobile, she said, but the girls always ask about being in Reading for Life. And she isn’t talking about $100,000 to provide the programming to girls, she said. It’s just a few thousand a year that is needed.

For things to improve there has to be more of an emphasis on educational programs for juveniles, probate court Judge James Fox said. More adult jails are being built, he said, but there isn’t a focus on stopping the problem when offenders are kids.

“These kids need more attention and help, and unfortunately the way the system works they get less,” Fox said. “It’s sad to see someone who desperately wants to be cared for.”

___

Information from: South Bend Tribune, http://www.southbendtribune.com

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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