Graduation, Family Court Style – Part 2

"Giovanni should be commended for his excellent painting skills while cleaning graffiti" read the certificate of completion for Giovanni Costa, one of the eleven graduates of the Juvenile Accountability Court’s community service learning program.

This past Wednesday, the Juvenile Accountability Court held a graduation for the second class of young people who completed sixty hours of community service, a mandatory requirement and one of the most daunting aspects of their probation. What makes this project unique is not the certificates presented upon completion, but rather the structure of the program itself. Taking a new approach to youth community service, the program combines innovative community service projects with youth specific academic workshops all focused on a uniting theme. The goal: to hold the probationers accountable for their behavior while addressing issues that effect their lives and may have led to their arrest.

The theme for this cycle was “Citizenship,” chosen to help give the participants a better understanding of their role in society. We felt that it was important for them to know how their actions dictate whether or not they are contributing positively as good citizens to their community. We introduced this concept day one and made sure to reiterate it throughout the entire program. Sixty hours later, spread over four weeks, the participants who completed got the opportunity to share their experiences with the very same court players who hear and make decisions about their case. In attendance were two family court judges, five lawyers from the Office of the Corporation Counsel and three probation officers. Also in attendance were Bronx Community Solutions staff members and most importantly, the parents of several of the participants.

While we played a slide show documenting the four weeks, each participant was responsible for explaining different components of the program. A few participants spoke about painting over graffiti and even read a letter of appreciation from one of the business owner’s whose property they helped clean. Another participant spoke about building book shelves at World Vision, a community-based resource center located in the South Bronx, that would later distribute the book shelves to schools in need. Other participants spoke about their experience at the Bronx Community Solutions' Play Streets event, a week long initiative to reserve a city street and provide a safe space for school age children during weekday hours. Painting over graffiti and building book shelves can be fun, but they really enjoyed helping young children and were proud to speak about it. “We painted their faces, gave them lunches and just played with them,” said Freddie Bonilla. “They had a lot of fun with us.”

After the slide show, our guests met Donovan Spradley, the Juvenile Accountability Court’s first youth peer leader. As our most mature graduate from the first cycle of community service, we offered Donovan an internship as a peer advocate for the next group of young people. The idea is to continue to engage young people, where appropriate, beyond their sixty-hour community service commitment. “It was strange to be on the other side,” side Donovan at Wednesday’s graduation. “I know what they’re all going through and I just tried to offer them some advice.” For the next cycle, we will offer another recent graduate an opportunity to be a peer leader as well. The graduation then concluded with a brief Q & A session and the presentation of certificates.

After two sixty-hour cycles, I am still learning a lot about how to interact with young people and develop effective programming. However, it was really encouraging to see the parents and guardians of so many of the participants in attendance. Their support for their children sent a clear message: they want to be involved. This has started to generate a lot of ideas, particularly the idea of creating some form of a parent advisory board so we can all share thoughts on how to better help their kids. That’s an idea we’ll be experimenting with in our next cycle.