- Overcoming Obstacles
- Breaking the Family Cycle
- Second Chances
- Paying It Forward
- Eyes to the Future
- The Choice that Made a Difference
- Team Spirit
- Fighting Mental Demons
Please note that the names and photos (except in the case of "Overcoming Obstacles" and "Paying It Forward") shown here have been changed to protect privacy.
Jamal’s neighborhood wasn’t the ideal location to raise a child. Jamal saw drugs being sold, he knew which of his classmates were members of the local gangs, and he observed the violence that traversed his streets. The traditional childhood activities most of us associate with growing up, such as riding bikes or shooting hoops, were not a safe option in his part of town. When he looked around his environment for role models, the “successful” and “powerful” community members in his neighborhood were drug dealers and gang leaders.
One of his older cousins introduced Jamal to Middle Earth. He visited our Community Youth Center to get homework assistance, hang out with peers in a safe environment, and stay out of trouble. The staff not only kept Jamal safe, they taught him respect and engaged him in positive activities. Middle Earth promises to provide every child with a safe place, caring adults, information to create healthy habits, education to develop marketable skills, and the chance to help others. We keep our promises.
Jamal said about the staff, “They taught us how to cook and clean up after ourselves and to take responsibility. They took us on trips to amusement parks and theater shows. They organized activities like sports and arts and crafts.” Middle Earth staff provide a fun environment, but more importantly, they equip youth with skills that last a lifetime, like budgeting or how to apply for a job. Staff assist teens in exploring the options for their future, helping them to apply to college or practice for a job interview. Jamal said, “The staff worked so hard to show me how I should go about life… and make sure we were doing the right things. I noticed how much time they took making us into better men and women. That showed me that they cared and I started to use the advice they were giving me in life and that helped shape me into the person I am today.”
So, who is the person that Jamal is today? The 21-year-old is currently attending Rutgers University, studying Communications and Human Resource Management. He plans to graduate in Fall, 2013. He holds part-time jobs at both the Bridgewater Marriott and Middle Earth, where he works in our Youth Center. Jamal is a role-model to our teens – he walked in their shoes and, despite the obstacles, has become a responsible adult. His future is full of potential!
Breaking the Family Cycle
When Frank (name changed for privacy) was first referred to Middle Earth’s Advantages Program, he was a 15-year-old who resided with his father and numerous siblings. Two years prior, Frank’s mother passed away from cancer. Still reeling from this loss, Frank and his younger brother now live with their father, whom they barely knew because he had been in and out of incarceration their whole lives. Of their numerous siblings, two are incarcerated, one is in a drug rehabilitation program, two passed away from medical issues, and one, who was born with Down Syndrome, was adopted by another family who could care for her. Frank, himself, was diagnosed as a baby with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, and his IQ score is recorded at 48. The family is extremely low income and struggles to pay their bills. Frank’s father had tried hard to improve his family’s situation by moving from a crime-ridden neighborhood, only to be dealt another blow when the family’s new home was affected by flooding and suffered water damage. With so many difficult circumstances surrounding his life and no real strong support system, it is no wonder that Frank landed himself into trouble.
Frank was referred to Middle Earth by Probation. He had originally been involved with the juvenile court system with a charge of bringing a loaded handgun to school, and while on Probation, he was not following any of the rules and regulations. At that time, Frank was also not in school, not working, and basically not doing anything. Frank was heavily involved with a gang, like many of his family members, and had a substance abuse issue. He was getting in trouble, suffering from mental health issues, taking drugs, lacking life skills, and had no plans for the future. Probation hoped that this one last chance with Middle Earth would make him wake up – otherwise, he would be incarcerated. Our Advantages Program, which provides an alternative disposition for the juvenile justice system, costs $12,000 per child per year versus taxpayers paying approximately $75,000 to incarcerate that same child for a year. Not only is our program significantly less expensive, it has much better results in rehabilitating the participants.
The first step Middle Earth took to help Frank was to reinstate his schooling. Unfortunately, because Frank had just moved from one school district to another, he got lost in the system. He had been suspended from his previous school, but he moved before home schooling was established, so he was in limbo. If things had continued the way they were, Frank likely would have become a dropout. Middle Earth became Frank’s advocate, and after working with the new school district, we were finally able to secure home schooling and eventually had Frank placed in a therapeutic school program. Staff became Frank’s guiding force, encouraging him to attend school every day, tutoring him when necessary, and helping him with homework. Currently, Frank is in school and working towards graduation.
When Frank first came to Advantages, he was not committed to making changes, and he was still getting into trouble with the police. The staff kept working with Frank, trying to build a relationship, garner his trust, and show him how his choices now would impact his future later. Eventually, the hard work paid off, and Frank was able to open up and trust staff. He has learned how to express himself and often comes to staff for advice, to talk about his mother’s death, or to have informal counseling sessions when issues arise in his life. Soon, Frank earned a day off from program for his good behavior, but he often came in on extra non-scheduled days and asked to participate in activities that were not required as part of his program.
While attending the Advantages Program, Frank also participated in life skills groups that helped him with the basics, such as writing his name in cursive, improving his math skills, learning how to search and acquire employment, and obtaining driver’s education. Frank completed all of his community service hours that were required for his rehabilitation and often volunteers at other community service activities that Middle Earth offers. He was also enrolled in a second program here at Middle Earth, which provided him with an internship. This was an eye-opening experience for Frank. He performed very well and learned a great deal of responsibility. With the money he earned, Frank was able to pay off all of his fines, as well as open a checking and savings account. The Middle Earth staff have taught him the basics in budgeting, and he is saving money so that he can buy a car when the time comes. Frank was involved in numerous activities at Middle Earth that included trips to colleges, job hunting trips, mock job interviews, recreational trips to go bowling and baseball games, and listening to guest speakers about topics such as substance abuse and safe sex. Middle Earth also referred Frank to the Division of Developmentally Disabled, so that they can help him more with independent living when he is older and qualify him for additional programs.
One of the biggest steps in Frank’s life was when he decided to leave his gang. Once Middle Earth became his support system, Frank no longer needed to receive his sense of belonging from his gang. Although it is difficult to leave a gang, he took the “punishment” that comes along with leaving that lifestyle because, in his words, he “no longer wants to be associated with those people” and “wants to focus on doing the right thing in life.” We have watched him turn his back to former gang members and openly discuss why he made the choice, which is encouraging to other Middle Earth youth who are facing the same type of situation. Frank’s life has improved greatly since he is no longer gang involved, and he is no longer getting into trouble.
Probably the most telltale sign of Frank’s improvement is the reaction of those around him. After working with Frank for almost a year and a half, all of us at Middle Earth feel like he’s a completely different child. Frank’s family is extremely appreciative as they have seen a total transformation in Frank, and in particular, Frank’s relationship with his father has improved greatly. Probation is also extremely pleased with Frank’s turn-around. He reports to Probation every week without issue. In surveys that have been given to Frank, he has stated that he “started following Probation requirements because of program” and that he “love(s) program because it has helped me a lot, like getting into school and (with) court issues.”
Frank is only one of the many youth that Middle Earth has helped to turn their life around. Although many of the youth we see are not as needy as Frank, we offer every one of them hope, opportunities, skills, a support network, and help to define their own future. This is what Middle Earth does. We take the youth who are likely to become dropouts, criminals, addicts, teen parents, and welfare recipients, and we change the trajectory of their lives. Frank has an excellent chance to live a productive, responsible and successful life, and it was because he received the support he needed and began to hope again. In addition, we will continue to be there for Frank even after he graduates program. This is the commitment that Middle Earth staff give to each and every one of the youth who walk through our doors. Middle Earth is a place for youth to turn whenever they need guidance and direction.
Second chances are a way of life at Middle Earth. We never believe that a youth is too far gone to give up on them. As is always the case in life, everyone responds differently to every experience, so when is it our right to decide someone is not worth our effort? Never. Giving someone one more chance may be the opportunity that changes their life.
John is an 18-year-old youth who was ordered to attend the Advantages Program as a condition of his Probation. Advantages offers the juvenile justice system an alternative to incarcerating youth, by providing comprehensive and structured after-school services. Each youth has an individualized treatment plan tailored to their needs that outlines their personal goals for successful completion of the program. When John began Advantages, he was heavily involved in a gang, was using marijuana consistently as a way to relieve stress, and was not enrolled in school. He was living with his single mom, who was also experiencing hardship due to a serious illness. The family was struggling to make ends meet and to maintain a roof over their heads. John’s initial experiences in the program were not successful. In fact, he was terminated within a few weeks of starting the program for non-compliance, receiving new charges, and for demonstrating an overall disrespect towards staff. This could have been the start of a downward spiral. At 18, with no education or marketable skills, a drug problem and gang involvement, John’s future seemed very bleak and was being shaped towards a life of crime.
John spent some time in Detention. Afterwards, Probation and Middle Earth felt that John should give the program another chance. Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom before you can realize that you need help and begin to make changes in your life. Upon re-entering the program, John showed a different attitude towards receiving help and improving his life. Middle Earth staff slowly began to garner his trust and teach him about respect, taking responsibility, and developing a real future. He began to reach out to staff consistently to help him achieve his program goals. His willingness to get help made him successful. John re-enrolled in school and is currently doing very well. He obtained employment and performed so well that they offered him more hours. John tested clean when given drug screens. In addition, he obtained his driver’s permit and is making payments towards his fines.
As John moved towards obtaining the required number of points to graduate from program, he became increasingly nervous and told staff that he did not want to leave the program. His newfound success felt tenuous and he was worried how he would fair on his own. To his relief, our staff explained that even though he will graduate from program successfully, Middle Earth is always here for him. Just because a youth is not “in a program,” our staff doesn’t stop working with them. Middle Earth is a tight-knit family that will be a support system for as long as we’re needed. John successfully graduated the Advantages program with a job, a continuing education, and skills that will help him to move forward in a positive way with his life — all because of a second chance.
Paying It Forward
Back in 1968, I was a person who was hopeless. At the age of 14 I had watched my brother mainline Heroin. My parents had been divorced and married for a total of 8 times between them. I was hanging out on the streets of Somerville, drinking more alcohol than a person of any age should.
Middle Earth provided me with a place to obtain guidance and direction, as well as express my concerns about the systems that affected the youth in the area. They taught me how to establish short and long term goals, which was new to me.
In 1973, I was a new mother and not sure what I was going to do with my life. Dan Puntillo (executive director) came to my apartment one morning and told me to get ready for an appointment with the financial aid officer at Somerset County College. I insisted that this would not work, but before I knew it, I was enrolled in college. I finished my degree and went on to a four year college and obtained my Bachelors Degree in Social Work.
For twenty-six years now, I have been paying it forward by helping others who have been abused, abandoned, or neglected as a child; aiding those with developmental challenges; helping senior citizens living in nursing homes; teaching social problems to those incarcerated as they attend college; working for a state legislator; community organizing; leading girls and leaders in Girl Scouts; and aiding those who are returning to the community from an acute mental hospital. I went on, after my children were grown, and obtained my Master of Science in Social Work which has allowed me to continue to offer the legacy and values that were first given to me at Middle Earth.
Without the guidance offered by Middle Earth, I may not have finished high school let alone returned to college as a single mom, I may have remained on welfare as my mother did, and not had the strength to return to school to obtain my master's degree. I was literally removed from the streets of Somerville and headed in the right direction to what I consider a very successful life.
Mary D. (Hicks) Bishop
Eyes to the Future
Richard wasn’t worried. He was only 18-years-old, and he felt sure that his future would look much different than his present. Richard was currently on probation, in a gang, struggling with substance abuse, and was testing at a 9th grade level for reading and a 5th grade level for math. He wasn’t employed and certainly didn’t have any of the qualities an employer would look for, so it was much easier for Richard to focus on having fun in the present.The team at Middle Earth worked hard to garner Richard’s trust and soon began to teach him about accepting the consequences of his actions and planning for the future. Once the staff helped him see clearly the future of his current path, he had all the motivation in the world to change course. Richard and the staff worked on his resume, phone skills, volunteering, academic skills, money management, career planning, and more. The team advocated for Richard to be enrolled in summer school, and within 5 weeks, Richard received his high school diploma. Middle Earth helped him enroll in technical school and secure financial aid and housing. By the time Richard left for school, he had his substance abuse under control, his test scores had gone up to 11th grade for reading and 12th grade for math, and, perhaps most importantly, he understood the process for getting help and finding resources. Richard had this ability within him all along – the team at Middle Earth just helped draw it out. Now, this blossoming adult doesn’t make impulsive choices based on the short-term because Middle Earth helped him realize that the horizon of his future is endless.
The Choice That Made a Difference
He didn’t know it, but Greg, a local 17-year-old boy, stood on the brink of a momentous decision that would affect the course of his life. His “family” – no, not his father who was in prison, nor his mother who was an addict; but rather his gang that had served as a substitution – was going out on the streets that night. Normally, Greg would have jumped at that chance, but lately, he had been reconsidering his involvement with the gang since he was enrolled in a program at Middle Earth. Greg struggled with this choice... should he go out?
Greg arrived at Middle Earth on probation with drug issues, no job, a high school dropout, and months away from becoming a father. The future wasn’t looking very bright, and so it was easier not to look beyond the present. Then, the team at Middle Earth got to him. Greg was suddenly surrounded by positive adults who truly cared for him in a way that he had not experienced before. The staff worked hard to garner his trust, and soon Greg found a new “family” in their acceptance.
Greg started receiving drug counseling to deal with his substance abuse issues. He began to attend parenting classes with his girlfriend to prepare for the upcoming birth of their baby. The staff tutored Greg for taking the GED. Greg was taught important life skills, such as money management, resume writing, phone skills, career planning and applying for a job, cooking, and more. Meanwhile, Greg was actually having fun at Middle Earth – the programs offer the children access to computers, pool tables, basketball, exercise equipment, art supplies, and sound booth equipment. There were a lot of “cool” ways to spend his time constructively with his peers. And throughout all these classes and recreational programs, the staff slowly weaved in important skills for a successful adulthood – teaching positive decision making skills, instilling respect for himself and others, helping him to accept the consequences of his actions, and explaining the process for finding resources when you feel stuck.
So, when it came down to that night that Greg was pressured by his gang to go out, when Greg struggled with what to do, he ultimately made a different decision than he could have imagined before. He had promised the staff at Middle Earth that, the next day, he would volunteer at one of their community service projects. He wanted to help make a difference in the community. So, he decided against going out that night. He wanted to be rested the next day, and the values he was learning at Middle Earth clashed with all that the gang represented. And that one decision – that moment of clarity and of choosing a positive alternative – meant that Greg was not involved in a shooting that night that left two people in critical condition.
The shooting was an eye-opening experience for him - he realizes now that one choice can have a huge impact on your life, and so he chooses with care. Greg credits Middle Earth with helping him to believe in his own capability to achieve high goals. Once Greg could clearly see his current path and was taught how to plan for the future, he gained the motivation to change course. Greg wants to attend community college upon passing the GED – something he had thought beyond his reach before – and the staff will assist him with the enrollment process and help him secure financial aid.
In the past couple of years, Middle Earth formed a basketball team that participates in games through the Somerville Recreation Department, who graciously waived the fees in order for our kids to participate. The youth on our team were from our Community Youth Center. Some of the youth were on probation, some were not. The majority of the youth were currently in school. Some of the kids did not make the high school team so this was their second option. Most come from single parent, low-income homes. Regardless of their background, our teams have been comprised of positive young men.
The basketball games allowed these youth to learn to work together as a team and gave them the opportunity to learn to coach. Some of the youth expressed that they would not have been able to play if the fees had not been waived. Others said that the league helped them to stay out of trouble and to engage in a positive activity. They said that they like playing for Middle Earth because of what Middle Earth provides for them. The team has received a lot of support from the staff and other youth that attend the Center who go to cheer them on at the games.
How funny… we can change the directions of lives with a simple game. Richard L. Evans once said,“Children will not remember you for the material things you provided but for the feeling that you cherished them.”
Fighting Mental Demons
Jane was a 15-year old girl from Franklin. She was referred to Middle Earth’s Outreach Program through Richard Hall Community Mental Health Center, primarily due to her mental health issues. She was diagnosed bi-polar and was struggling in school and at home. At the time of the referral, she had continual behavioral and academic issues at school, and her relationship with both her grandparents, with whom she lives, was filled with animosity and tension. Her mother had infrequent contact with her. When they did speak to one another, Jane would often have negative reactions afterwards that directly affected her behavior. She also had minimal phone contact with her father. Finally, she struggled with her self-image due to weight gain from her medications.
Jane was receiving services from the Tri-County Care Management Organization (CMO) as well as from Middle Earth. Our Outreach program assigned a Mentor to Jane. The Mentor developed a strong relationship with the CMO case worker, the in-home counselor, the school and the family. Together with Jane, they worked to develop goals that would assist her in becoming better able to handle the various stressors in her life and to become more independent. The task was difficult initially as Jane was impulsive and was not able to stop to think through her actions and their consequences. She would fight with her grandmother whenever her grandmother would try to enforce a rule within the home.
Jane’s Mentor initially worked on establishing trust with Jane and listened intently to her issues. They began going to the gym together in order to assist Jane with her weight loss goals. This served the dual purpose of helping with weight loss but also in building a positive relationship with the Mentor. Gradually, Jane became very reliant upon the Mentor because she knew she would be there for her. The Mentor attended family meetings and helped to improve the communication between Jane and her grandmother.
Over time, Jane found a new appreciation for her grandparents, and both she and her grandmother could stop and take a moment to think before they lashed out at one another. Their communication improved immeasurably. Jane also was able to talk to the Mentor about her feelings regarding her biological parents. She was able to process her disappointment and pain but also began to assess the relationship more realistically. She continued to see a therapist to deal with her mental health issues.
In school, the Mentor was a strong advocate for Jane, but also maintained the stance that if Jane did something inappropriate, she needed to face the consequences. Jane managed to turn her school situation around and is doing very well. As she began to see how well she could do, she felt pride and a sense of accomplishment. Many of her teachers noted the positive change in her which reinforced her efforts.
“What’s done to children, they will do to society,” said Karl Menninger. So let us not treat our teenagers with ill regard, because who knows what ills they will return? Instead let us offer our teenagers resources and opportunities so that they will succeed and then contribute to the good of the community.