Inside a Social Service Class
"I was selling cigarettes on the street."
"I got into a fight with my sister."
"The police found weed in my car."
It's Friday afternoon, and the 12 participants in the Bronx Community Solutions social service class are describing the arrest that brought them into our program.
You can see that the participants are interested and engaged in the class. One person who started out slumped in her seat is now sitting up, describing her arrest for loitering. Another young man who had to be reminded to turn off his cell phone has put it away and is talking about being a long-term marijuana user.
"I was on top of the world, but now I've fallen" says an older man when it's his turn to speak. His classmates listen intently as he describes his descent from a stable professional job to drug use and depression.
I've seen this process repeated again and again in the classes I've visited. The participants start out with their arms crossed and their mouths shut, determined to stay that way. But give them an opportunity to tell their story, listen without judgement, and you'll see a transformation. In the right environment, they're willing to own up to their mistakes and ask for help.
"How many of you believe that your behavior and choices had a role to play in your arrest?" Maria (who's teaching the class) asks. Eight hands shoot up. "Big time," one adds.
Maria zones in on one young man who hasn't raised his hand, the one who earlier talked about his marijuana use. He's a harder case - he's convinced he was set up by someone in the neighborhood and that his smoking is not a problem.
"Have any of your friends or family asked you to stop smoking?" Maria asks.
He thinks for a moment. "I've had girlfriends tell me I'm a different person after I smoke," he admits.
"Yeah, my mother."
He's starting to sweat. His pose of cool indifference is beginning to wear a little thin.
"Has smoking weed every day kept you from achieving any of your goals?"
"Well, I haven't got my GED, and I can't find a job without it" he says.
After the class is over, about half of the participants stay to speak with Maria. Three sign up for a job training program. The older man who spoke earlier tells Maria his Medicaid has expired and he needs help replacing his inhaler. He'll go back with Maria to her office, where she'll call her contact with the Department of Health. The young marijuana smoker stops to get some advice on entering a GED program. "When's a good time to see you?" asks another woman, arrested for possessing crack.
That's how we measure success with a social service class - how many people stick around after the class is over to ask for help. We don't know how many will follow up, but it's a start.
It's almost 3:00, and Maria asks the remaining class members to walk out with her. The next class is about to start.