ALPENA - A partnership between the Alpena County Department of Human Services, 26th Circuit Court Family Division, and Catholic Human Services will bring a new mentoring program to Alpena County next month to help troubled youth and families make adjustments to improve their lives.
The program, "From Decisions to Actions," started in Sault Ste. Marie in 1996 and has since found success in Gaylord, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and other areas across northern Michigan, which encouraged local leaders to pool grant money from DHS and family court to bring the program to Alpena. Catholic Human Services will administer the 10-week curriculum to five boys and five girls, ages 12-17, with referrals from the court or DHS due to adjudicated offenses or family troubles, and match each youth with a volunteer mentor for weekly two-hour classroom sessions on topics of positive thinking, decision-making, relapse, cooperation, empathy, communication, and other information related to helping young people change problematic thinking to make better decisions.
The parents of each youth must attend a separate session in conjunction, led by former DHS worker and program moderator Tom Woizeschke, which guides them through the guardian's role in helping the youth or family make these adjustments. Woizeschke said the program is not about passing judgement and should be both corrective and preventive, as it intends to address unhelpful modes of thinking at an age where kids are still learning and developing.
"We're going to start it off with a dinner at 6 p.m., so the mentors would sit with the parents and kids, kind of a social hour before we started. Then they'd work with the kids on their homework assignments," he said. "The curriculum is set up where the parent sessions parallel the kids, but for the parents it's more about what to do or what your kid's going through ... kind of expose them to a different way of looking at things."
Juvenile court and DHS will cover all costs of the program, and other communities have reported considerable success with it. Data from follow-up studies collected in the past three years and included in 2011's fall newsletter from the State Court Administrative Office indicated that 90 percent of youths showed improved communication with parents after the program, and 80 percent did not reoffend or exhibit worsening behavior. The newsletter also included an open letter from Cheboygan Probate Judge Robert Butts endorsing the program as "an integral part of the court's rehabilitative efforts in delinquency and neglect cases."
"In the youth class, participants examine their decision-making processes, attitudes and other essential social skills with the help of a volunteer mentor. Parents learn to identify their own self-defeating behaviors, and the differences between passive, aggressive, and assertive parenting styles," he wrote. "The program has been shown to significantly reduce recidivism in youths and improve parenting skills. Youths are motivated to change their behavior because they now have caring adults who hold them accountable."
From Decisions to Actions does not yet have an exact start date and location in Alpena, though its aim is mid-March; initial enrollment is limited to 10 due to manageability and cost-effectiveness. Woizeschke said a second session is likely, depending on the success of the first.
"Once we're up and rolling, I don't think it would take a whole lot to schedule a second session, and from what I've heard from the other programs, there's such an interest in it that that part of it seems to take care of itself," he said. "Kara Steinke at Catholic Human Services writes for the grants, and she's already working on another one for the second session."
Catholic Human Services has yet to choose administrators to lead the student sessions and is in the process of recruiting mentors of various ages and interests. The court also offers a $200 stipend to anyone willing to volunteer. To apply to be a mentor or find more information, contact Catholic Human Services at 356-6385.
Andrew Westrope can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 358-5693.