When 19-year-old Anthony Gray agreed to complete a youth work training program upon release from incarceration, he assumed it meant showing up to a job, getting a paper signed and leaving.
In reality, the Youth Advocate Programs’ community-based alternative to incarceration, called YAPWORX, is an intensive job-readiness mentorship program that Gray says really works.
“They had mentors, took me to school, they took me to work,” Gray said. “They made sure I got to where I needed to go.”
The Baltimore teen is now on track to graduate from high school in June and plans to jump right back into the workforce, he said.
Gray joined 11 other participants of the program Thursday at Coppin State University for a small ceremony to celebrate the students’ successful completion of the highly individualized program.
Advocates with YAPWORX, which operates nationwide, seek to address the myriad hurdles facing young people who’ve been involved in the justice program, are facing substance abuse, mental health and trauma-related problems.
YAP regional director Craig Jernigan said the program works for people such as Gray because it has a “no eject, no reject policy,” meaning no one is considered to be beyond the program’s capabilities. Patience, flexibility and understanding are baked into the program.
YAPWORX is less about finding a job for people and more about teaching them how to retain a job — especially when they have complicated circumstances, Jernigan said.
“I see how they come to us,” he said of the youngsters. “They come really raw and unpolished.”
The program, Jernigan said, is ideal for Baltimore because of the high unemployment rate and crime in some neighborhoods.
“There are a lot of young folks in Baltimore struggling with getting employment and underemployment,” Jernigan said. “Plus there are a lot of crimes and drugs to distract them. The barriers in front of them are magnified [in Baltimore] by a lot.”
Many of the YAPWORX staffers and community partners come from those same communities.
One such business owner, 39-year-old James Mitchell, grew up in Northeast Baltimore. He hired two YAPWORX participants to work at his Towson-based cybersecurity company Reasonable Tech Solutions.
Mitchell started giving back to the community where he was raised by coaching a basketball team. Joining YAPWORX as a supported worksite was a natural progression to that mentorship, he said.
“I have three kids personally, but I have 50 other kids through coaching and mentoring,” he said.
The experience has taught Mitchell patience and given him an opportunity to provide guidance he said he wished he had more of as a child.
“Everyone needs a little bit of work inside and out,” he said, adding that he teaches participants how to dress and speak in the workplace.
“You have to have patience because you don’t know what they have going on at home,” Mitchell said.
At home, Gray’s mother Kashina Walker says she has watched her son learn skills through YAPWORX that translate to his role as a father to two little daughters.
The girls wiggled around on Gray’s lap at the program’s graduation ceremony Wednesday. He kissed the younger one on the cheek and said he plans to get a job after graduating high school so that he can support his family, and maybe even become a YAP mentor himself one day.
“They were supportive for a young father,” Walker said. “This program is unmatched. You can’t get this somewhere else.”