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Juvenile mentorship program matches volunteers with at-risk youth

Photo: Chris McCormick of East Wenatchee has been a volunteer mentor with the Chelan County Juvennile Court Mentoring Program since its inception more than four years ago. McCormick says "authentic relationships" are especially important to youths going through juvenile court.

 

Brandt: ‘We all have a story of someone who believed in us’

While we all need someone we can count on, having that special person you can trust in your life can be especially important when you’re a young person, struggling to find your way, says the Chelan County Juvenile Court commissioner.

“We all have a story of someone who believed in us,” Court Commissioner Tracy Brandt says. “You can’t underestimate the power of positive re-enforcement in a young person’s life.”

It was this belief in the power of mentorship that led to the creation of a unique program in the county’s juvenile court.

The Chelan County Juvenile Court Mentoring Program pairs volunteers from the community with youths appearing in juvenile court. It is not a required program of the court, but one that first relies on adults to step up and then for the at-risk youth to ask for help.

“I never force a mentor on a youth,” Brandt says. “At the same time, very few young people I see say they don’t want a mentor.”

A juvenile court mentor is a trusted role model and friend who encourages youth to fulfill their educational or vocational goals and supports a crime- and substance abuse-free lifestyle. Volunteers are not representatives of juvenile probation or the juvenile center. Mentors are also not someone there to support a youth’s parents.

They are adults who will act more like a friend – someone who will spend time with a youth, leading by example, and who a young person can call when they need to talk. The mentors are someone who will accept a youth for who they are.

“My goal is that every young person who comes in juvenile court receives a mentor,” Brandt says.

The Chelan County program has 11 volunteer mentors as well as five more in the vetting process, says Corey Stephens, administrator of the Chelan County Juvenile Center. Since it was started more than four years ago, the program has grown mostly by word of mouth, attracting people from a variety of backgrounds and experiences in the community, Stephens says.

Adults interested in becoming a mentor are first invited to a monthly mentor meeting to ask questions and learn about the program. They then go through a rigorous background check that includes finger printing and a polygraph. Potential mentors are interviewed by Brandt and Stephens and participate in a training. Only after the training is each matched with a young person in the community who is in the juvenile court system.

Chris McCormick of East Wenatchee was the first mentor to help kick off the volunteer program. A youth pastor for 35 years, McCormick is the area director of Youth Dynamics of the Wenatchee Valley, a non-denominational Christian organization that works with youth in a variety of leadership capacities throughout the area. Locally, Youth Dynamics also focuses on getting young people outdoors.

Five years ago, when he started meeting weekly with youths in detention as a chaplain, McCormick couldn’t help but feel there was more he could do to help.

“Meeting them in detention, I was getting the tip of the iceberg,” McCormick says. “I wanted to know more about their background and their stories.”

So McCormick started attending juvenile court, sitting in the audience to learn more about what brought the youths to the legal system and what kinds of support systems they had at home. The simple act of showing up in court was an eye-opener for McCormick while it also showed the youths they had someone there on their side.

Seeing McCormick sitting in the courtroom, Brandt oftentimes would ask McCormick to speak on behalf of a youth; McCormick always responded with positive, kind words, she says.

“It is so nice for the kids to see, ‘I have someone in my corner. I have someone who believes in me,’” Brandt says.

And from this simple act and its immediate impacts, Brandt, Stephens and McCormick all played a hand in starting the grassroots mentorship program.

“We want someone who is going to be committed to the youth,” Brandt says of the mentors. “We want someone who isn’t going to give up on them. That has already happened in one way or another in their lives.”

Mentors commit to one year, or while a youth is on probation. They are asked to attend a youth’s court hearings to show support and to try to connect with the youths weekly (texting works nowadays). Mentors also participate in monthly mentor meetings and meet their youths for activities in the community.

It takes a special person to work with youths who have experienced trauma of some sort, Brandt says. This means it can take time and patience to make a connection with a young person who is going through the courts. And just when you have made a connection, some kids may disengage for a while.

“Don’t be discouraged if things don’t turn out as you imagined,” Brandt advises mentors. “You have planted a seed. For a moment, that youth saw what a healthy relationship looks like. That is so important.”

McCormick admits having the right expectations as a mentor was a challenge for him. He had to learn that results would take time and successes would be measured in small steps.

“Sometimes it is really hard for the kids to understand why we keep reaching out and why we care,” says McCormick, who is in court two days a week and in the juvenile center once a week. “My mind goes to the need and how incredibly powerful authentic relationships are with these kids.”

McCormick invites youths to a weekly gym time at the local rock-climbing facility. He meets them in the community for fun activities, picks them up to fulfill community service requirements and takes calls when a youth needs to talk. He’s even gone on a seven-day rafting trip with one mentee.

“People who make good mentors have that compassionate heart to help other people,” McCormick says. “They must be a good listener and be willing to take the time to hear a youth’s story.”

While it can be hard to measure success with a program like the mentorship program, Brandt counts the small successes she sees in her courtroom, including not seeing some kids return.

“No child is a lost cause,” she says. “That is the theme for us in juvenile court – that we are going to try and try again for them.”

If you are interested in becoming a mentor in the Chelan County Mentoring Program, contact Chelan County Juvenile Justice Center Administrator Corey Stephens at corey.stephens@co.chelan.wa.us.

Last Updated: 12/07/2022 09:02 AM

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    The Canvassing Board of Chelan County, pursuant to RCW 29A.60.160, will hold public meetings at the dates and times listed below. The meetings of the Canvassing Board are open, public meetings under the applicable provisions of chapter 42.30 RCW, and each meeting shall be continued until the activity for which the meeting is held has been completed.

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