Atlanta, Ga. – “I really enjoy being an Advocate,” said Sheena Cole. “There’s a lot of kids out there who are just lost and need guidance. It definitely takes a village.”
Cole is an Advocate for Youth Advocate Programs (YAP), Inc., a national nonprofit that provides community-based alternatives to youth incarceration, out-of-home child welfare placements, congregate care facilities, and neighborhood violence. YAP is in 32 states and the District of Columbia. In Georgia, YAP has been in Chatham County for nearly a decade but in Fulton County, YAP is a new addition, launching a little more than a year ago.
Cole has been a Lead Advocate and Administrative Manager since the YAP Fulton County office’s opening. Previously, she was an Administrative Manager with YAP in Baltimore. Cole said in the time she has been with Fulton County YAP, she’s witnessed youth become more upbeat and less depressed, open up to her, and most important, trust her.
“It makes me feel like I did something,” she said. “I like having teachable moments with youth.”
YAP’s community-based alternative is a simple evidence-based model that relies on Advocates like Cole, most of them neighborhood-based, who receive special training to help program participants see their strengths and connect them to accessible tools to help them reach their educational, economic, and emotional goals. Additionally, YAP helps parents and guardians by connecting them with basic needs resources – to help them firm the youth’s foundation.
A mom herself, Cole said her relationships with youths’ parents is extremely important.
“When something happens, they call me,” Cole said of the youth participants’ parents. “Even if they need to vent, they know they can call me. Everybody talks to me, and I talk to them.”
Cole has taken her Atlanta program participants to historic and impactful places including a local Black owned gallery, the National Civil Rights Museum, Dr. Martin Luther King’s birth home and Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, which King once led. The trips help keep youth excited and build trust.
“YAP is always open to letting us try different things to connect with the youth,” Cole said. “Some of them are so used to their own environments that they’re not used to anything outside of it.” Cole has also taken youth to neighborhood boxing classes and introduced them to documentaries they can watch at home with their families.
Fulton County YAP Director Haasan Smith described Cole as the carburetor of the program in Atlanta, adding that all of the Atlanta Advocates have the great ability to build a rapport with youth and families, and exercise empathy and understanding when working with them.
“Sheena is always willing to help, provide assistance with staff and families, and is always searching for resources or other needs for the families we serve,” Smith said. “Her ability to balance her professional life and her life as a mother is handled by her very well; not to mention how being a mother helps her to better understand and respond to the youth we serve as well as their parents.”
For Cole, being an Advocate for youth and families with complex needs leaves her with a good feeling. It also works for her need for balance in her own life.
“Being an Advocate is unique and special,” Cole said. “Sometimes, it’s really like a 24-hour job, especially if that other parent is [struggling and] absent from the youth’s life. You have flexibility to be able to work with youth whenever they’re available.”
If you’re interested in becoming a YAP Advocate, visit www.YAPInc.org. Follow the organization on Twitter @YAPInc.