- Associated Press - Monday, January 5, 2015

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - June Lehr is the grandmother three troubled youths never had. The position can be challenging.

As a mentor through the Heart River Bridges of Hope program, Lehr is reaching out to juveniles who have been held at the North Dakota Youth Correctional Center in Mandan.

One of them has re-offended and is in a women’s penitentiary in New England. Another young woman stays in touch from eastern Montana, and Lehr’s newest mentee is a 17-year-old male, who was recently released.

“I think, in their lives, I am the grandmother that they didn’t have,” Lehr said.

Training of mentors is ongoing and took place most recently on Nov. 22 at Bismarck United Church of Christ. The program was established three years ago to support juvenile offenders prone to falling through the cracks after release.

“We’re just trying to follow God’s lead,” said the Rev. Renee Splichal Larson, pastor of Heart River Lutheran Church in Mandan and mission developer for Heart River Bridges of Hope. “How do we be in relationships with young people when they’re out of corrections? It’s a lot of trial and error, trying to understand what really works.”

The program, supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, is ecumenical in nature, and Larson and Nesheim work closely with partners, such as Youthworks and the Missouri Valley Family YMCA.

Unlike other social service programs, Bridges of Hope aims to build faith-based relationships with youth who are often recovering from addiction and unused to maintaining trusting relationships.

“We do know that relationships are powerful,” Larson said. “And that’s where we’re banking everything, in terms of transformation and care for the youth.”

Youth sentenced to the correctional facility range from ages 12 to 20 and stay an average of seven to eight months, during which time they are provided with education opportunities, health services, addiction treatment and other coping skills.

They also have the opportunity to interact with mentors from the community.

“I felt if we could make a difference in the lives of these children, maybe we wouldn’t have so many homeless by the age 40 or 50,” said Lehr, a home health nurse. “If we don’t start focusing on these children, we might as well start building more jails.”

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Upon release, youth often return to difficult home environments and have trouble staying sober. Those who turn 18 while in state custody sometimes are released to the Ruth Meiers Hospitality House in Bismarck, which puts a strain on an already overburdened homeless system and does not provide the youth with adequate support to establish themselves in society.

“The youth learn really important skills while at NDYCC,” Larson said. “It is the youth who do not end up in a transition placement (upon release) that we are really trying to focus on . They’re being abandoned.”

According to Larson YCC youth are often unchurched, but some are from Catholic, Protestant or Native religious backgrounds. Bridges of Hope, a voluntary program, aims to address spiritual needs and faith formation upon re-entry, providing an alternate social community through support from area churches.

“We’re not about proselytization but rather just caring for the whole person, and really that is an expression of faith,” Larson said.

Adults interested in becoming mentors complete the Bridges of Hope training and undergo a thorough background check. Mentors also must be approved through the Youth Correctional Center’s volunteer program.

Brad Eilers, who has served as a mentor for two years, said the program has changed how he thinks about youth in the correctional system.

“We all make some assumptions and don’t really know their stories,” he said. “It’s really easy to lump them all together, and say ‘Oh, they’ve had a hard life.’ But once you make a connection, you can take labels off, take people out of boxes. Their stories are unique to them.”

Bridges of Hope began hosting a weekly game night on the YCC campus six months ago, providing a space for mentors to interact with the youth while they are still “locked up.” Eilers said getting to know the youth prior to release from the facility has been critical in building trust.

“I’m a really big believer in this game night thing,” Eilers said, who plays card games and table tennis with males in the facility. “Several boys I’ve gotten to know that way. It’s fun to go back and get into competition, talk a little smack.”

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Heart River Bridges of Hope will move into a new office space at Ministry on the Margins in Downtown Bismarck in December. There they will be able to host mentor and caregiver support groups and provide a central location for mentors to meet with youth.

“We just feel really passionate about mobilizing the community around these kids,” said Diaconal Minister Shera Nesheim of Heart River Lutheran Church, who participates in the training of mentors. “Working with youth is where people most often find a future with hope.”

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Information from: Bismarck Tribune, https://www.bismarcktribune.com

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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