Harrisburg, Pa. – Youth Advocate Programs (YAP), Inc. Dauphin County Community Treatment Center (CTC) Director Craig Gittens connects with young people before their actions could lead to lifelong repercussions in adulthood.
Many of the program participants CTC serves are inner city, gang affiliated, have minor drug and firearm charges, and some use marijuana to self-medicate from other issues they may be experiencing, according to Gittens.
“I was working with grown men with issues with substance abuse, incarceration, abandonment and rejection from fathers,” Gittens said. “Now I get to work with youth so maybe we can stop the process before problems continue to grow, take root and create damage. The youth we work with think their biggest penalty is going back to jail but the biggest penalty is that they’re dead on a T-shirt.”
Headquartered in Harrisburg, YAP is a 49-year-old national nonprofit in 35 states and Washington, D.C., that partners with youth justice, child welfare, and public safety systems to deliver community-based services as alternatives to incarceration and placement. YAP also uses its community-based wraparound services model as part of its public safety and violence interruption work.
In an interview with theneighborhoodadvocate.org, Gittens, a father of six – four of whom are teenagers – said he has been drug and alcohol free for 1,586 days (and counting). A drug and alcohol counselor and public speaker, he has led YAP’s Dauphin County CTC since August 2023. CTC program participants are ages of 14-18. They attend the afterschool program where they are fed, get help with homework, participate in recreational activities, complete chores, and receive treatment and training tools to equip them to make better decisions.
“In order to teach kids how to kill their demons, you must first kill your own,” Gittens said. “One of my youth has had three of his friends die. You have to know what the struggle is and it doesn’t necessarily have to be a background of violence. If you come in there perfect, they don’t want to deal with you. I share that I have done things, spent time in jail, but I don’t always share the substance abuse part because for a lot of them they haven’t had major drug abuse issues.”
A Bronx, N.Y., native, Gittens has lived in Boston and Atlanta but eventually put roots in Harrisburg where as a little kid, he attended Bible Camp. He said although he had it rough growing up, his family sustained him, saying he grew up in a different era compared to today.
“It was a horrible time, but our family unit was so strong that I was protected. It was still a strong sense of community and I think that is what is different now,” Gittens said, adding that he grew up in poverty and in the projects. “It may be that parenting or the legal system has failed young people nowadays; but we are doing what we can to help step in and fill those voids. A lot of them fall into that false narrative that gangs are a family, but it has dire consequences.”
Gittens said he didn’t know anything about YAP before he noticed the job opening, read the mission of the organization and applied.
“We have a great community here as far as the people that I work with,” Gittens said. “I work with a great group of people. There are easier ways to make the money we pay them. The people here are here for a purpose.”
In December, Gittens received the 2023 Dauphin County Male Recovery Champion of the Year Award from the Dauphin County Commissioners in recognition of his efforts to support those who are fighting to make positive changes in their lives.
“Craig is the real deal,” said Central PA Regional Director Bob Swanson. “He brings passion in supporting our youth, day after day.”
Gittens speaks at schools and works with organizations to help reduce the stigma with substance abuse disorder.
“Kids are not going to do what you say because you tell them,” he said. “It’s based on relationships and trustworthiness and that is what we do. Some people just want to incarcerate our youth, but YAP is an alternative to youth incarceration and we have to invest in our children and plant seeds. We may never see the seeds develop, but we plant seeds of hope, trust and values.”
Gittens dedicates his work to his mother Thealo Gittens who passed away two years ago of pancreatic cancer.
“She prayed for me for two decades to get my life together,” he added. “I dedicate what I do to my mom.”
For more information on YAP, visit yapinc.org or follow the agency on X, formerly Twitter, @YAPInc.