By Jack Brandl
My signature project supported and empowered young people that have previously been incarcerated or are likely to be incarcerated due to a variety of factors. This endeavor expanded upon my work leading the Buckeye R.E.A.C.H. program in the Office of Student Life’s Department of Social Change at the Circleville Juvenile Correctional Facility, a program that connects Ohio State students with incarcerated young men for a mentorship-based, mutually, developmental experience for all involved.
Implementing this program this summer and fall has changed me in several ways. The first being a change in focus from the incarcerated population to populations of vulnerable youth. I previously spent so much of my time attempting to connect currently incarcerated young people to the resources and opportunities they need to develop, I lost the time I was spending on prevention of vulnerable populations from falling into the same traps. I saw firsthand how important it was to address community concerns early; prevention is the best solution to massive issues like incarceration. I am now dedicated to using more of my time to work with vulnerable youth and address the system affecting youth, which is leading to incarceration. Additionally, this project further supported the idea that young people need long-term contact to connect and be comfortable in a mentorship relationship. Working with youth is not just a scheduled event, but involves building a life-long relationship with each individual young person––something my patience and ignorance had previously failed to convince me.
A variety of factors and personal experiences have lent themselves to these changes. First, almost all the young people in the program needed to be transported to the meeting location. Some young people lived outside city limits or in far-flung areas of the city. It took hours of volunteers time to transport the young people to our program and affiliated events. However, this experience allowed me hours of personal time and occasionally even one-on-one time in the car that provided a backbone for our mentorship relationship that was undeniable. The car was where I could check in with the youth and where they were often their most open. Stories and perspectives shared with me were sometimes joyful, sometimes painful, and sometimes traumatic––but they were all important for understanding that young person. I could get to know several of the young people on a more intimate level that I would not have if we just met during the confines of the program.
Watching the growth of the youth over the course of the program also led me to a change in perspective. My work with Buckeye R.E.A.C.H. meant I was in front of the incarcerated youth for about 4 hours every other weekend. This program allowed me to spend hours working with young people every week with extended face-time. I got to know many of the families of the young people and some of the young people asked to connect on social media and proceeded to post positively about the program or about their time with the adult mentors. One young man, for example, wrote on Facebook that I am one of the greatest teachers he’s had in his life. My name was just below his mother and father. It was a profoundly emotional moment where I realized my potential impact as a disruptor of circumstances and supporter of young people. This young man who wrote the post was about to graduate from an alternative high school and was about the age of many of the young men I work with the Buckeye R.E.A.C.H. program. I realized my efforts, if better focused on preventative measures, would have a greater effect.
The young people I worked with this summer are life-long mentees. Although we began in the summer, there has been no end date to our work. Although stressful for STEP timelines, I realized recently this organic continuity is necessary and perhaps the most impactful for the success of the mentee. How do you end a friendship with no motivation to end the friendship besides that programming is complete? If the program is administered correctly, it is impossible for both parties and that relationship will continue and that young person will receive the benefits of a mentor for years to come. That is how the world works for our most successful individuals, I believe it should work the same for those cast out and downtrodden by our society. Often, we are afraid to form true relationships with people that are different from us, but it is going beyond politeness and truly getting to know someone else that is powerful. I have gained so many perspectives and learned so much about others, myself, and the world through taking genuine time for people. Perhaps this is one for the greatest lessons I have taken away from this project.
I am so grateful to have been able to be a part of the STEP program and for the opportunities, it has given me that have shaped my academic, professional and personal path. Academically, I have a better understanding of program management and of the issues facing communities of color. I am a double major in Public Affairs focusing on community management and African-American and African Studies focusing on social issues. I have felt more confident in my coursework as I now have a firsthand understanding of a lot of the concepts discussed in class. Furthermore, my professional path has been altered. Formerly, I wanted to work with incarcerated juveniles doing programming work inside the facilities. Now, however, I feel I am called to work with middle school-aged young people. This age group is the range for when we tend to “lose” kids to gangs, violence, incarceration, miseducation, and other systemic factors. By disrupting along that age demographic, we are targeting young people before a critical window where their socialization, environment, support system, and personal development collide to entrench young people in bad habits and behaviors. Once anchored with young teens and pre-teens, the programming can expand to cover younger and older demographics. Ultimately, as made clear by this project, long-term strategies work best. Finally, I was changed as a person through my involvement with this project. I believe there are spectrums and degrees to everything in life. Although I felt I understood the people I was working with, I reached a deeper level of connection to individuals and the Columbus community. I feel more compassionate, open-minded, and dedicated to this city and its people. This opportunity has been unlike any I have ever been a part of, and I am so thankful to STEP for allowing me to experience it.