MIDDLESEX COUNTY, NJ — Brian, 13, and Esteban, 14, stood proudly before community leaders and family members as they unveiled a mural decorating a wall at the New Brunswick, NJ Youth Advocate Programs (YAP), Inc. office. The unveiling was part of a holiday gathering that gave the boys a unique perspective on how their strengths and talents can be a special gift to others.
“They described how the mural depicts the phoenix facing the future with optimism and the feathers entangled represent different paths in their lives and how they might intertwine,” said YAP Middlesex County Program Director Rebecca Escobar, who also serves on the New Brunswick City Council. “It reminds the youth that no matter what circumstances they faced, there’s always a lesson, making it possible to overcome obstacles.”
Brian and Esteban participate in YAP’s Diversion program where schools, police officers and/or parents refer young people who are beginning to exhibit behaviors that put them at risk for coming into conflict with the law. “They might be smoking marijuana or fighting, being disrespectful to teachers or running away from home,” Escobar said.
With the help of local artist Bob Ahrens, Brian and Esteban joined other YAP participants to create the mural as part of their Diversion program community service. Among those attending the holiday mural unveiling gathering were young people who had completed the YAP program in previous years. Escobar said it’s not unusual, especially around the holidays, for former program participants to come around to ask how they can give back.
The Diversion program is based on a model YAP developed 44 years ago to give youth justice, child welfare, social services and other systems community-based alternatives to incarceration and out-of-home placement. It’s a unique wraparound model where neighborhood-based Advocate mentors empower young people to identify and realize their individual gifts as they give parents and guardians tools to reinforce the family foundation.
Using the YAP Advocate model, YAP provides youth in the Diversion Program with facilitator Advocates who guide the young people through group sessions, individual mentoring and community service projects that enhance their individual interests and talents. At the same time, YAP Advocates support the youths’ families.
“In the right situation everyone can improve,” Brian said.
Throughout the holiday season, Middlesex County, YAP Diversion Program youth participated in holiday-focused service projects, including Thanksgiving turkey distributions to 250 community members, including 40 YAP program participating families. In addition, YAP’s New Brunswick School-based Youth Services Program provided gifts for 43 families it adopted from New Brunswick High School, Lord Stirling Community School and McKinley Elementary School, where 27 students received new coats.
“This is the season to give back,” Escobar said. “As they give back, the youth reflect on what YAP means to them and how we are a safe space for them; a place where they don’t feel judged and where they express how hopeful they feel towards changing themselves and achieving more for a brighter future.”
As Escobar spoke to TheNeighborhoodAdvocate.org, she received news from the from Rutgers Community Health Foundation that the program will receive funding again in 2020.