Compton, CA — At age 19, George looks back to the person he was three years ago and is grateful that he had a chance to turn his life around. He thanks Reggie Cooper, his Advocate, for believing in him and more important, making sure he believes in himself.
Cooper works for Youth Advocate Programs (YAP), Inc., the national nonprofit in 31 states and the District of Columbia that partners with youth justice, child welfare and other systems to provide community-based alternatives to youth incarceration, congregate placements, and neighborhood violence. YAP opened an office in Los Angeles in late 2019, partnering with Shields for Families for referrals.
George feels fortunate that he was offered a community-based alternative to incarceration, where the opportunities he has received through YAP would have been nonexistent. He’s also glad that he gave Cooper a chance, saying he was hesitant when they first met, even suspecting that he might have been an undercover police officer instead of a YAP Advocate.
“People will fake a relationship,” he said.
But true to YAP’s “no reject, no eject,” never-give-up approach, Cooper persisted; and it worked.
“I actually talked to him. He came to the crib,” George said. “I was like oh, Reggie’s cool.”
YAP’s cost-effective, evidence-based model is simple. The nonprofit hires culturally competent Advocates, most of whom, like Cooper, live or grew up in or near the neighborhoods they serve. The Advocates receive training that helps them empower program participants to see their strengths while connecting them and their parents and guardians with tools to firm their family’s foundation. Among promising Office of Justice Programs (OJP) youth justice diversion initiatives, YAP’s alternative-to-youth incarceration programs serve many young people whose histories include serious offenses, multiple arrests, and lengthy out-of-home placements. John Jay College of Criminal Justice research found 86 percent of program participants remain arrest free, and six – 12 months after completing the program.
George prefers not to talk about what led him to YAP, seeing it as part of a past he is determined to leave behind. With support and encouragement from Cooper, he’s now dual enrolled in high school and an electrical line technician trade school program. His Advocate also helped him apply for a scholarship for a trucking program. He now has positive options that prior to his arrest, he would have never imagined.
“I saw George’s strengths right away,” Cooper said. “He’s smart and focused. It was just a matter of connecting him to the right tools to help him use his strengths to set his life in a new direction.”
Like George, Cooper knows firsthand that change is possible. Growing up in Inglewood, he was involved in activities as an adolescent that could have also landed him in prison. Things got so bad that his mom moved the family to St. Louis where her son could have a fresh start. Cooper made changes in his life and earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Missouri St. Louis.
Cooper told George about his Inglewood childhood, which helped them bond. But George said what really did it was when he learned that the two have the same taste in music, with both of them naming Meek Mill and the late Lil Snupe among their favorite rappers.
George is on track to receive his diploma early next year. Beyond that, he will take advantage of the many options that his YAP Advocate is connecting him to.
He also plans to follow Cooper’s example of giving back to his community, beginning with sharing his story with the hope that it will help the program expand in Los Angeles and give other young people tools to help others see their strengths and improve life for themselves and their families.