Nashville program keeps at-risk youth from re-offending

Editor’s note: During each Chips Quinn orientation and multimedia training in Nashville, Tenn., scholars are required to complete a mobile media reporting module, which includes producing videos and reporting and writing stories. Their work is displayed here.

by Charlie Kaijo

NASHVILLE, TENN.—For the city’s formerly incarcerated youth, over 95 percent have not re-offended within 18 months of their release, a success rate Tay McGee, a juvenile prevention specialist with the R.E.A.L. Program (Reaching Excellence As Leaders), said was one of the highest in the country for 2016.

The R.E.A.L. Program is one of 19 youth intervention program partners under the umbrella of Oasis Center, which is located in the Youth Opportunity Center building. Other programs provide counseling to youth struggling with LGBTQ issues and center on homelessness, college access and street outreach, to name a few.

The R.E.A.L. Program’s high success rate comes as Nashville experiences its highest youth homicide rate since 2009. Youths 19 or younger were arrested in connection to nearly a quarter of the 75 criminal homicides in 2015, according to a story published by The Tennessean newspaper.

Five years ago, R.E.A.L. merged with the juvenile court system to help reintegrate some of Nashville’s most at-risk youth. In the last 18 months, over 100 people have entered the three-month, often court-ordered program where they meet with counselors under a guided curriculum from Monday through Wednesday for two hours a day.

During program periods, mentors discuss with the young people issues around trauma, anger management and the characteristics of integrity and responsibility. The group attends community locations such as food pantries to feed the hungry and takes special trips like to a boxing gym for training or one of Nashville’s universities for college exposure.

Tay McGee, a juvenile prevention specialist, stands alongside a row of portraits at the Youth Opportunity Center in Nashville, Tenn. The young people pictured on the wall were each asked to come up with a word that the R.E.A.L. Program (Reaching Excellence As Leaders) made them think they could be. (Photo by Charlie Kaijo/Summer 2016)

“Until you show me that path, then I don’t know that path even exists,” McGee said. “If everyone around me is gangbanging and selling drugs, when I come out of the community I’m going to mirror or reflect what I’ve seen.”

The young people in his program are disproportionately male minorities who come from impoverished, single-parent homes and were not often exposed to positive activities.

Exposure to those activities is responsible for the change in their course, McGee said. Going beyond the curriculum, he said what also keeps the youth from re-offending is a sense of acceptance from program coordinators and peers and accountability to their neighborhoods, mindsets he tries to instill through the activities he nudges the young people toward.

A key way to connect with the young people is to “find out what they like,” he said. “They say, ‘Hey I want to be a rapper. I want to be a country singer. I want to be this.’ We’ll take them to the Country Music Hall of Fame. We’ll take them to a studio.”

To develop a sense of accountability for their neighborhoods, McGee proposed a murals project for the youth. Most recently, they completed a mural in the gym of a community center in the Antioch section of the county. “They feel accountable and responsible for that community center, so they’re more encouraged to keep it clean, more encouraged to respect that area because they have put something to it,” McGee said.

While the activities encourage the young people to follow better paths, the program also provides them with a place where they can be kids. This freedom, McGee said, has been lacking in their lives, given the pressure that exists to posture or mimic an image. “I have seen youth go from being involved in gang activity to become student of the month at their high school,” he said.

Video: An Intervention at Oasis

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