Scottsboro, Ala. – It’s been approximately a month since Youth Advocate Programs (YAP), Inc. opened YAP House in Jackson County, Ala., creating a haven for youth and families to share a meal, do homework, connect, and unwind, said YAP Marshall/Jackson/Dekalb counties Alabama Program Coordinator Beverly Benson.
YAP, a national nonprofit in 35 states and Washington, D.C., partners with youth justice, child welfare, behavioral health, and public safety systems to deliver unique evidence-based youth and family wraparound and behavioral health services in homes, schools, and other community sites as an alternative to youth incarceration and residential care.
Consistent with the nonprofit’s mission, YAP House is not a residential facility, but rather a community meeting space. It’s where kids returning home from residential and youth justice placements reconnect with their families as they meet with YAP Advocates who provide individualized services that empower them to see and nurture their strengths, firm their foundation, and put their lives on a positive course.
The priority of YAP Jackson County is reunification, Benson said, adding, “When YAP gets involved, they [systems partners] know kids will have the best opportunity to go home. We do what we say, and they know the quality of our work. It’s all about getting kids home and keeping them home.”
YAP serves several counties in Alabama including rural areas of Marshall/Jackson/Dekalb through partnerships with local child welfare and youth justice systems. The YAP House is a satellite office open to both the Jackson and Marshall County programs. YAP Jackson County has 35 families in its child welfare program helping youth from newborn to age 18 and currently has four participants, ages 11-18 in its youth justice program. YAP Marshall County has 10 participants in its youth justice program.
“Jackson County’s Youth Advocate Programs has brought to our community an essential service that meets an underserved, yet very deserving, population,” said Jackson County Alabama Chief Juvenile Probation Officer Lauren Gattis. “These dedicated workers, each with a servant’s heart, have touched and helped families in ways that were not possible before. (American anthropologist and author) Margaret Mead said, ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has,’ and YAP exemplifies this sentiment each day with every family they serve.”
The relationship YAP Jackson County has with the Jackson County Juvenile Court is important, as the courts refer youth to the program.
“Four out of five of our families have been impacted by substance abuse,” Benson said. “The support from the community has been so overwhelming. I knew if we ever opened a YAP House in Jackson that we would be greeted with this warm reception, and it has really been encouraging of the work we do in these counties.”
Among YAP House program participants supported by YAP Jackson County was a young woman referred to the nonprofit after inappropriate cell phone usage on social media got her into trouble. When she returned from placement, YAP staff helped to stabilize her and her family and connect them to resources while educating them about the dangers of certain online usage. Additionally, the first week YAP House was open, staff members got a referral involving a youth who had run away from home. Once the youth was found, YAP Advocates brought him to YAP House where they gave him food and a place to rest, while deescalating the situation; allowing the youth to speak with his probation officer and reunifying him with his family.
“I cannot even begin to say how many positives we’ve had since the opening of that building,” Benson said. “It’s a space for families to be able to visit with their children. A lot of these families don’t have housing; housing is a huge barrier for us in these rural areas…so we’re able to provide them with that space.”
YAP House is a small refurbished mobile classroom that has three rooms and two bathrooms. The first room houses a table where staff can work on parenting and life skills curriculum; a living room is the second space where toys, board games and reading can be done. There’s also a kitchen area for families to create/eat meals together and has a computer.
“YAP House allows youth and family engagement,” said Benson, mother to five adopted children. “I think of YAP House in Jackson County as a neutral space that families can engage. We’re trying to eliminate some of the trauma of families and youth experience by being separated.”
Benson learned about YAP six years ago when she was looking for resources for one of her children. Shortly thereafter, she was hired as a YAP Advocate. Benson says she takes pride in what she does and since YAP Jackson County opened the YAP House, community leaders and other counties have taken notice.
“This program is on fire and Benson is leading the way,” YAP Alabama Regional Director Vivian Davis said.
Benson credits Davis, the six YAP Advocates in Jackson County, the three in Marshall County, Administrative Manager Brianna Wells, Program Coordinator Sarah Daugette, and Vice President of the Southeast Dr. LaVeisha Cummings for the successes of the program.
“The community sees YAP House as such a vital resource for the community,” Benson said. “Coming to YAP is one of the best moves in my entire career. It is my life’s work.”