Wayne County, NY — Three years out of prison and fresh off parole, James Schuler was making money fixing cars in 2012 when someone told him about Youth Advocate Programs (YAP), Inc. Although at first, he was confused about what the program did, Schuler knew it had something to do with what has always come second nature to him – helping young people succeed in life.
YAP is a national nonprofit in 33 states and the District of Columbia that partners with youth justice, child welfare, behavioral health, and public safety systems to provide community-based alternatives to youth incarceration, congregate residential placements, and neighborhood violence.
When Schuler showed up without an appointment, Wayne County YAP Program Director Mike Crespo was happy to meet with him. Crespo was so moved by Schuler’s story that he invited him to speak at an upcoming YAP-hosted parents’ event.
“I told them that I served 10 years in 11 New York state prisons after being convicted of possessing half a gram of crack cocaine,” Schuler said. “I was 29 when I went into prison with a wife and three daughters who were 9, 6 and eight months at the time. I ended up getting a divorce, but fortunately, my wife married me again when I got home.”
Schuler recalls that after his speech, there were few dry eyes in the standing room-only space. “Before I could leave the building, Mike was offering me a job to be a YAP Advocate,” he said.
Schuler accepted the job and for nearly a decade worked as a frontline YAP Advocate and Program Coordinator, when late last year he accepted a position as Wayne County YAP Assistant Director. In his time with YAP, he has often told his personal story as an invited guest at churches, community events and schools. Formally and informally, at every opportunity, Schuler inspires and encourages young people to see and nurture their strengths. One of the highlights of Schuler’s community work came in 2014, when he was selected to represent Wayne County as part of President Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative to help boys and men of color reach their full potential.
He arranges cultural activities and boat rides for young people – experiences that until meeting Schuler many considered off limits. He also regularly speaks to students at Hobart William Smith Colleges where he has brought more than 100 YAP program participants and other youths to visit and participate in campus tours.
“To my surprise, last week, I was the first individual to be named Community Partner of the Year,” he said. “Hobart and William Smith Colleges recognized my work with the community as a YAP employee as well as what I do with My Brother’s Keeper.”
In 2020, after the world learned of the death of George Floyd after he struggled to breathe under a police officer’s knee, Schuler worked with the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office and a diverse group of high school students to host a Black Lives Matter march and rally.
At the event, a former program participant named Travontay talked about how as his YAP Advocate, Schuler empowered him with tools to change his life. Travontay and his family had been homeless when a school prank almost landed him in youth prison.
“He’s an amazing man who became my role model and family Advocate. He worked with a lawyer to fight for me to stay in the program instead of going to youth prison,” Travontay said. “As part of his services, he worked with my mom’s family to bring us back together. My uncle let us move into his house; my mom got a better job, and I started doing better in school.”
Schuler said Travontay and his family have continued to do well.
Schuler knows that his story is one of many examples of what YAP is all about. From the staff like Crespo, who still works side-by-side with him, to the community partners and the young people and families receiving services, it’s about working together to achieve positive outcomes.
“It’s seeing individual and collective strengths and giving one another every opportunity to nurture them,” he said.
That’s how Schuler and his fellow YAP staff safely support and help youth, families and communities thrive.