Building Trust Behind Locked Doors
by Anne Marie Bergthold
At first it may seem intimidating to enter a room and have the doors lock behind you. That was the experience of Marian Martino, one of the Mentoring Youth Project’s volunteer mentors at Juvenile Hall. For Martino, the rewards soon overshadowed the initial anxiety.
Martino was introduced to the Mentoring Youth Project by Pam Hays. The program is organized by the Parent Resource Center, which Hays has been involved with for over twenty years. Hays’ introduction to Juvenile Hall was in 2005 when she toured the facility along with fellow members of Leadership Modesto.
Hays was inspired by the work of Duane Noriyuki, a writer for the Los Angeles Times, who taught creative writing to inmates at Central Juvenile Hall in East Los Angeles. The program was chronicled in the book True Notebooks by the author Mark Salzman, who himself became a writing teacher at the L.A. facility. Despite not having a background in teaching, Hays embarked on the venture of starting a creative writing program in a juvenile detention center here in Stanislaus County. Hays explains that on the surface level, writing can “give these girls something else to think about for that hour.” In the longer term, writing creates “an appropriate outlet for their emotions.” Often inmates lash out with physical violence because they have not ever had anyone to model other outlets of self expression. From the first meeting, writing offered the kids a release and a sort of escape. It’s because of these effects that the creative writing classes evolved into a mentorship program.
WRITING CAN GIVE THESE GIRLS SOMETHING ELSE TO THINK ABOUT FOR THAT HOUR. IN THE LONGER TERM, WRITING CREATES AN APPROPRIATE OUTLET FOR THEIR EMOTIONS.
Today, the girls meet with their mentors for at least one hour each week. The mentors not only help them with their writing, they help the detainees look ahead to the future and make a plan of what they can do when they are released. According to Hays, many of the girls she works with are homeless, often with a parent who has been incarcerated. Martino adds that the goal is to “help show that they have options” and that each girl “has a future if she wants to pursue it.”
In Hay’s experience, most of the inmates are not convicteded for violent crimes, more commonly they are being detained for drug use or have been registered as runaways. In the case of the runaways, it is not uncommon that the reality is that they were forced to leave home by their parents. Both women emphasized that the individuals that they interact with at Juvenile Hall are not drastically different than other teenagers, they have the same dreams and aspirations; the defining difference is often simply a result of their environments.
Martino’s initial visit to the detention facility was on a game night, during which she taught the girls to play the card game “Steal the Pack” which she notes, was “rich in irony.” Reflecting back, she explains that she hadn’t known what to expect; her preconceived notions were shattered by the realization that all the detainees are just trying to survive. While they may act strong, in reality the girls she interacts with are broken and fragile. She immediately felt a strong connection and continued to visit weekly, stating that her visits have “affected my life in a really dramatic, really powerful way.”
THE GIRLS THAT THEY INTERACT WITH ARE NOT DRASTICALLY DIFFERENT FROM OTHER TEENAGERS—THEY HAVE THE SAME DREAMS AND ASPIRATIONS, TOO.
Volunteers are asked to commit for an entire year of mentoring, which includes meetings while the girl is incarcerated and weekly contact after she has been released. The volunteers speak very highly of the staff, but the mentoring program helps to fill a crucial void as staff are limited by the perimeters of their role. Hays explains that the Probation department considers it a conflict of interest for staff members to follow up with individuals after their incarceration. Volunteers are uniquely suited to provide support. It is paramount to establish trust during the weekly meetings as, according to Martino, despite the best efforts of the mentor, it can be difficult to maintain contact once they have been released.
Potential volunteers may be intimidated to work with juvenile delinquents, but rest assured that staff members are present at all times. Hays emphasizes that the girls are respectful of the time spent with the mentor. Participation in the mentoring program is voluntary and mentors will be reassigned if either party feels uncomfortable. All volunteers go through comprehensive training run by the Parent Resource Center, who are also used as a point of contact to maintain the privacy of the volunteers. Some may be wary of the length of the commitment, but Hays assure that the year “flies by in the flash of a moment.”
Currently there is only a program in place for female mentoring, but Hays said the PRC is eager to expand if there is sufficient interest by male volunteers. In fact, the number of boys detained in Juvenile Hall vastly outnumbers the girls so there are many opportunities for mentorship. Upon asking Hays what she would say to people to encourage them to engage with these individuals, she simply replied, “meet the kids.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT THE MENTORING PROGRAM, visit www.prcfamilies.org or call 209.549.8193.