guiding light

How a southside organization is helping at-risk youths, their parents and the community
By Sara McAninch 

Concerned about the lack of neighborhood services and programs for young people, a coalition of southside community leaders banded together to form the Southside Youth Council in 1974. “It was started by a group of parents who couldn’t find services for their high school teens who were having trouble,” says Kendee Kolp, president and chief executive officer of what is now called Reach for Youth Inc. “A group of volunteers got therapists from the southside to volunteer their time to provide services to kids.”

In the past 46 years, the organization has expanded quite a bit. While it maintains its roots at the southside site, it has a second office in Indianapolis, offering a more centralized location.

Reach for Youth is family-focused and provides assistance to youths ages 7 to 18, “regardless of race, color, gender, religion, national origin, age, disability status, culture, sexual orientation, gender identity, parental status, educational background, socioeconomic status, intellectual perspective, and organizational level,” according to its website. While there is a fee, and a lot of insurances are accepted, an inability to pay is not an obstacle.

“I don’t have to turn kids away because they don’t have the right health insurance, or they don’t have any health insurance,” says Kolp. “It’s important that we see kids regardless of their ability to pay.”

Reaching out
Programming includes mental health and behavioral counseling services, the Alternative to Expulsion program, group prevention services, training and workshops, and Teen Court. A newer offering called REACH, which stands for relationships, education and employability, access to resources, collaborations with community and college, and hope, is a “one-of-a-kind academic and employment readiness program,” says Denise Senter, director of mental health and clinical services. The approach is “designed to help parents and youth advance to higher wage employment opportunities.”

The organization’s mental health and behavioral counseling services address “issues related to childhood and adolescent development, and those related to family relationships,” Senter says. “Typical issues seen include managing academic and school behaviors, issues related to community violence and trauma, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, sexting and electronic risk behaviors, issues related to gender and identity, and family relationships and conflict.”

According to Senter, the organization will expand its offerings in 2021 to include older youths “as they transition to post-secondary education and training,” which will be for ages 18 to 24.
Parental engagement is mandated when a child seeks assistance because it helps them be more successful. According to Senter, “Parents and youth working together as part of the resolution to the issues involved is a necessary part of long-term change.”

This inclusive approach has yielded positive results. Families report a 90% and above satisfaction rate for the services, and a more than 95% reduction in whatever behavior originally brought the family in for treatment. The positive change is one of the most rewarding parts of staff members’ jobs.

“Seeing family come together and strengthen, and have more hope than when they entered the door, is ultimately one of the most rewarding things,” says Aaron McBride, director of prevention services.

Overcoming stigma
Unfortunately, there’s sometimes a stigma around getting help for mental health issues. Reach for Youth addresses that head on.

“We seek to help youth and their families understand that everyone needs positive mental health in order to pursue daily life,” says Senter. “Sometimes, life hits us with experiences for which we have not been prepared. Parents and teens need to know that seeking help from others moves us from a sense of isolation, fear and confusion, to one of connection, reassurance and hope. At Reach for Youth, we focus on the necessity of relationships and hope in meeting the challenges facing youth and their families.”

No matter how small or large an issue may seem, the organization is ready to help. “To get mental health service, it doesn’t have to be a traumatic thing that happened,” says McBride. Cases the organization has seen include anxiety with virtual learning and the pandemic, feeling pressure to get all A’s in school, being perfect to get into the right college or find the right job, and communication-style gaps between a parent and child, to name a few.

Teen Court
Reach for Youth’s vision is to “give kids a second chance,” says Kolp. That vision includes making sure a mistake made by a youth “doesn’t dictate their entire life,” she says. One way to help with this is Teen Court.

Teen Court is based on a national model, and it was established at Reach for Youth in 1989. It is for first-time youth offenders to give them an opportunity at a second chance through a peer court experience. Youth volunteers serve as defense and prosecuting attorneys, as well as jurors. Adult judges are picked from a pool of volunteer attorneys who come from surrounding counties.

“The program started to give youth a diversionary to the traditional juvenile probation system. It’s trying to take away the stigma with having a criminal record,” says McBride. “One big misconception is that if a juvenile commits a crime, that record will be expunged when they turn 18, and that’s not the case.”

Due to juvenile laws, the youngest age eligible for teen court is 12; the service is available up to age 18. The Marion County court happens every Wednesday; Johnson County is on Thursdays. In Johnson County, there are typically one to three cases per evening, for a total of about 12 or more cases per month. The most common situations seen are theft, lower-level vandalism, small forms of battery, alcohol possession, and marijuana possession and consumption. Truancy and vaping occurrences are also on the rise, according to McBride.

One of the key goals of Teen Court is to try to build developmental skills and help the youths take accountability for their actions. It also tries to help them understand that their actions have a broader impact on the community and their own families.

“We always advocate for positive youth development,” says McBride. “We don’t believe in zero tolerance policies in schools, such as expulsion, because it doesn’t provide support and development for the youth; it only punishes them.”

A combination of Teen Court and the mental health services and counseling offered by the organization provides coaching, guidance and positive reinforcement. As a result of this mix, the tendency of a youth to reoffend is around 13% to 15%, whereas the traditional system can be as high as 40%.

Stepping up
Reach for Youth is a small nonprofit, so help is always needed. One of the key areas is Teen Court, including youth volunteers and attorneys who can act as judges. Ages 12 to 20 are accepted for youth volunteers. Anyone interested in law enforcement or legal work is encouraged to volunteer as well, especially attorneys who need pro bono hours for bar requirements.

People who want to serve on a committee, such as fundraising, help with special events and participate in programming are welcome. Because the organization doesn’t have a maintenance department, there’s an ongoing need for assistance with outdoor work. Donations, of course, are also always accepted.

Learn more about Reach for Youth Inc., including its services, programs and volunteer opportunities, at Potential volunteers can contact Melissa Baker at [email protected]. Youth volunteers can contact Aaron McBride at [email protected].