Mentoring program seeks to reach at-risk youth
Talk is cheap, but when followed by action, it can make a difference in lives and a community.
Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans is taking action against violence by launching the Isaiah 43 parenting and mentoring initiative. Its goal is to strengthen families by teaching parenting skills and show youth and young adults ages 4-21 that they are valued and can be guided by positive role models.
Introductory sessions of Isaiah 43 were held at Blessed Francis Seelos Church in Bywater; St. Joseph the Worker Church in Marrero; and Holy Family Church in Franklinton. More than 20 people attended the Franklinton session.
“What we’re hoping is that we can play a part in strengthening families, strengthening family values and helping young people understand that there are choices and options that do not involve violence,” said Deacon Steve Ferran, vice president of Catholic Identity and Mission for Catholic Charities. “We look at it as one more weapon in our arsenal to fight violence.”
Isaiah 43 directly responds to a passage in “The New Battle of New Orleans” prayer – “to bless parents and bless and protect youth that they may be peacemakers of our time” – which Archbishop Gregory Aymond introduced in the archdiocese on Ash Wednesday.
When Deacon Ferran joined Catholic Charities this summer, he was immediately charged with developing this program. The archbishop deemed it a priority and was clear that it be rooted in Scripture. Deacon Ferran and a committee scoured Bible passages until they found Isaiah 43:4, “You are precious in my eyes and honored, and I love you.”
“For so many kids, no one has ever told them that,” Deacon Ferran said. “If they don’t have anyone in their lives telling them that, at least they have God in their lives.”
Tenets of Isaiah 43
To develop the pilot program, Deacon Ferran looked at Catholic Charities’ successes with youth programs. He invited Stewart Young, Cafe Hope’s youth services director, and Mamie Hall-Landry, an administrator with Catholic Charities’ Family Behavioral Health and Supportive Housing program, to spearhead the program.
Together, they’ve melded best practices adaptable for any parent-youth situation. Hall-Landry chose the “Active Parenting” module for the parenting component.
“You have to make sure parents have the skills to teach children and are able to communicate with them,” Hall-Landry said. “Sometimes parents are at a loss for what their children are going through.” Active Parenting has 10 different components that can be modified to each site’s needs.
“Depending on the community, there may be a need to teach all 10; in other communities, there may be a need to teach only five,” Deacon Ferran said. “In different neighborhoods, there may be more single dads or single moms and grandparents now parenting their grandchildren.”
Young, who has spent 20 years working with youth in Northern Ireland, California and Louisiana, said consistency and commitment from adults and young people are key. He will apply his successful five-hour training sessions used for mentors at Cafe Hope. Mentors and mentees are given clear expectations and assurances of ongoing support throughout their yearlong commitment.
“What we do that’s different,” Young said, “is that we want structure. When you know you have to do something every two weeks, you build your schedule around that.”
Mentors, who are at least 25 years old, and mentees get acquainted through several community workshops – incorporating games and exercises to build trust and familiarity in a non-threatening way – before they are paired. For example, participants write letters detailing their plans if they only had one hour to live. Each also has choices in his or her match.
“By the time you get to the point of matching, they’re comfortable,” Young said. From there, group and one-on-one time is incorporated in every session.
How it materialized
Deacon Ferran echoed the archbishop’s words when he said the community for too long has been reacting to the problem plaguing youth and families. If the tide of violence is ever going to change, he thought, a proactive approach should be used.
For example, why not strengthen the family by giving parents the tools they need to be better parents and provide direct intervention for young people?
“So many of our kids in our community live in a difficult situation and don’t have a positive role model,” Deacon Ferran said. “That’s where the mentoring part comes in. We will recruit positive role models for kids.”
Realizing that many youth who could benefit from mentoring aren’t in Catholic parishes, Catholic Charities has made the initiative a community effort and reached out to other faith-based groups and leaders to identify at-risk children and worthy mentors. The New Orleans Mayor’s office also has notified its links to neighborhood groups.
“It wouldn’t do us any good to recruit 500 mentors and have no kids,” Deacon Ferran said.
Catholic Charities will take the lead to train mentors and conduct Safe Environment training and background checks.
“The Catholic Church brings an infrastructure and solid organization that can sustain the program,” Ferran said.
With Catholic Charities leading the effort, the program will incorporate a spiritual component.
“We will be teaching the values espoused by the Catholic Church,” he said. “Many of our Catholic values are universal – the dignity of the human person and the respect for life.”
Even though Isaiah 43 hasn’t officially launched, support has mounted as word spread. St. Mary’s Dominican and Archbishop Shaw high schools have adopted Isaiah 43 and will provide childcare, donate books and prepare meals on site.
Father Joe Benson, pastor at Blessed Seelos Parish in Bywater, sees the program as an anchor to build community.
“It’s going to be a blessing to some of our people, but it’s also going to flow outward (beyond the parish),” he said.
The objective is to eventually establish Isaiah 43 in all 108 archdiocesan parishes.
“Some kids need a safe haven (from violence),” Deacon Ferran said. “It will be a place young people and families can go and feel they are safe. ... My hope is that by having a successful, meaningful and impactful program, it will grow by word of mouth.”