Thanks to two enthusiastic young people – one from Haiti, the other from Romania – more global leaders will be introduced to effective, more racially equitable community-based alternatives to youth incarceration and congregate residential care.
Alexandra Gheorghica and Michael Aristil are wrapping up 12-week Community Engagement Exchange (CEE) Program fellowships with Youth Advocate Programs (YAP), Inc. YAP is a U.S.-based national nonprofit in 33 states and the District of Columbia that delivers community-based services as an alternative to youth justice, child welfare and behavioral health congregate residential care, and neighborhood violence.
The CEE program is implemented by IREX in partnership with the Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. YAP Director of International Development Diana Matteson, who oversees the YAP fellowship program, acknowledged the nonprofit’s New Brunswick Program Director Rebecca Escobar and Los Angeles Program Director Brandon Lamar for serving as onsite hosts for the two fellows.
“It was always my dream to participate in an exchange program, to be exposed to the resources, skills and leadership potential,” said New Brunswick-based fellow Michael, who was raised in Haiti by his single mother until her death in 2018. “I started applying for exchange programs for years and I had failed in my attempts. By persevering and continuing to prepare myself I finally got this opportunity.”
As part of his fellowship, working alongside YAP staffer Patricia Louis, Michael came to understand how the YAP wraparound services model works to help young people and their families see and nurture their strengths to make positive life changes.
Alexandra, who came to the U.S. from Romania, has been spending her time working with YAP’s Los Angeles-based youth justice Advocate team. In her home country, she focuses on youth participation and empowerment in her work with the Active Development Association and as part of the European Youth Village Programme, which offers youth in rural areas tools to bring change, strategically address local issues, and create new opportunities for other young people.
“During my work in the States, I observed similarities in the challenges American and especially the Black and Hispanic youth and youth with fewer opportunities face,” she said, adding that they are “often subjects of systematic discrimination, stereotypes, and not being considered a relevant voice in their communities.”
CEE is supported by U.S. tax dollars to promote global civic engagement and provide meaningful connections so that fellows’ home communities can benefit from global collaboration.
Michael hopes to introduce aspects of YAP’s youth and family wraparound services model to support students he works for the Heliotrope Foundation as part of afterschool tutoring programs in Haiti.
“In the afterschool program, we provide the kids with the opportunity to come, learn, and play in a fun and caring environment — psychosocial activities, creative games, art, cooking lessons etc.,” he said. “The tutoring program on the other hand is designed to help the elementary school students with homework and provide them with weekly classes to help them in the subjects they are having difficulty with — Haitian history and culture, French, Haitian creole, math, reading etc. — especially because political instability and violence constantly paralyzes the functioning of school there,” he added. For example, Michael explained how school was supposed to be resumed in Haiti since September 5th, but due to the conditions up until now they are closed.
“Part of the insights from YAP I’m looking ahead to incorporate in the programs I run are to better focus and assess the interests, strengths, and areas in which the kids need improvements and work in closer collaboration with their parents to help the kids set goals and work towards achieving them,” he said. “Working with kids on a large group setting was good in some ways, but I have learned an important perspective that’s worth trying.”
Alexandra recently completed university studies and will continue full-time with the Romania Active Development Organization. The opportunity will enable her to train a network of leaders in disadvantaged communities who can strengthen their communities with new tools.
Alexandra said she plans to bring the energy and motivation from her experience in the States to in the rural communities in her home country.
“I am looking forward to returning and continuing to develop myself as a mentor who can train youth workers in their own villages to bring opportunities to support their communities, apply for their own funding, and work with authorities” she added.
Michael is not certain how he will share his YAP knowledge when he returns to Haiti. But he is hopeful, as he has been for years, starting each day with his morning ritual of listening to Mariah Carey singing, When You Believe.
“Not only should we raise the hope of the kids, I also believe we should create more places where youth throughout the country can find the support they need to realize their potential and to help them advocate for themselves,” he said.