Above: Listen to Anthony Payton’s interview with Manchester Police Athletic League Executive Director John Rainville
When gangs target children for recruitment, they are looking for youth who need acceptance from their peers and guidance from someone older. Unfortunately, Manchester and many urban neighborhoods across America are full of these children.
They strive to be respected by their peers, and some will do anything to achieve greatness. When they see their colleagues wearing the latest fashions and phones, it piques their interest. Coming from families where money is tight, they embrace a culture that prioritizes materialism. This is a toxic combination for children in these settings and people in these communities.
We hope that if not through the tutelage of their household, they will learn social behavior from teachers and counselors. And we also hope that these children will have some positive peer influences.
But how does this child take a mentor seriously when they share their clothes with their siblings and live in a household below the poverty line?
It is difficult to expect these children to be invested in class work and furthering their education. External problems like hunger and the economy can mean the difference between a child who is in school and a child who is doing well and planning for the future. And remember, there are thugs in rough places, some with guns.
These are the overlooked but turbulent bubbles in which some New Hampshire kids live.
They are unlikely to tell their parents that their playmate is also a drug dealer who others want to harm, and they hang out with him almost every day. This increases the likelihood that your child’s affiliation will link them to their friend’s criminal behavior. Worse, your child may be physically harmed by rival dealers or rival gangs just for hanging out with the same friend.
And in case you haven’t figured it out yet; Statistically, the life and environment of these children usually do not bring success.
Positive youth programs have had a positive impact on children’s lives and increased their chances of success. Vulnerable youth face delinquency, teenage pregnancy, suicide and substance abuse. According to federal research, mentoring by positive adult role models and older peers can prevent these negative outcomes.
In the second part of this series, Avoiding Prison or Early Death, I want to continue to highlight the organizations that connect this demographic with mentors from their communities. programs like Big brothers and big sisters from New Hampshire (BBBS NH) and the Manchester Police Athletic League (MPAL) seek to bring positivity and structure to these young people through mentoring and programs. They bring youth together with men and women who have been on the other side of the tracks and can now speak from an honest and experienced place.
Below: MPAL Kids
Robert Leone is Recruitment and Corporate Partnerships Manager for BBBS NH. A single mother raised Robert in the housing projects of Cambridge, Massachusetts in the 70’s and early 80’s. Although he went to a Catholic parish school, he was still a “project child” and had to deal with everything that entailed. Peer pressure threw Robert off course and he followed the crowd, becoming an at-risk youth himself. Robert also had to fight and stand up when his bike was stolen or someone threatened his safety. He’s dealt with everything a project kid has to endure, in addition to people calling him “Hey, white boy.” Robert was determined not to be the wimp.
At Robert’s High School, his teacher was a US Army Reserve Colonel. He told Robert he was lucky to get into that high school and then told Robert he was going to join the army.
Luckily, unlike so many others, Robert eventually took the right path once he joined the military. Often this is not the case. Big homiesthey don’t have what they are called little buddies’ best interest at heart. This is especially true when the big homies lead a life of crime themselves. In such situations, they give the little homies drugs and guns to transport. You know that the court system will be lenient towards the younger ones. They are the negative influence and see the younger boys and girls as pawns helping them to thrive and thrive. This is at the expense of the younger children.
Nevertheless, the little homie thrives on attention. As Tupac famously rapped, “I hung out with the thugs/And though they sold drugs/They showed love to a young brother.”
If you look at the mechanics of BBBS NH, the same elements are at play: love is there. The older youth lead the younger in the most positive and productive way.
BBBS NH offers boys and girls a place where they can work with a mentor who can help them navigate through times of vulnerability – and they create a positive model for these young people to follow. They create a culture of empowerment for New Hampshire’s youth and have taken mentoring to great heights, including one-on-one mentoring, workplace mentoring, and “Bigs with Badges” that pair these children with members of the law enforcement community and other first responders.
There are many programs at BBBS NH that cater to children with unique challenges. PRISM (Pride, Respect, Identity, Safety, Mentoring) supports children who identify as LGBTQ – a demographic with higher chances of struggling with mental health and discrimination. Children who have experienced trauma also have an opportunity to connect with mentors who can help them through their experiences. While Mentor 2.0 focuses on low-income and first-generation students.
BBBS NH has ministered to nearly 600 Granite State children. But the effect could be greater: 232 children are currently waiting for a mentor. These programs need the support of the community from all of us. You – yes you – can make a difference by becoming a mentor or during your “Grateful giving‘ campaign running now.
Build respect and community
From the outside, the colossal building on the corner of Beech Street and Lake Street in Manchester might appear to be a police academy or a substation with an imposing facade. But inside, there’s an elite-level boxing gym, a sleek kitchen used for cooking classes, and a massive space for wrestling and aikido classes. Here, MPAL aims to help the 8,600 at-risk youth within a mile of the facility and beyond.
MPAL Executive Director John Rainville explains that there is magic when officers meet and interact with community members and their children. This is how respect is created, and this is how people can develop a sense of community. He also loves watching kids develop a sense of pride and confidence through athletics. MPAL also runs court diversion programs for first time offenders. This program gives children the opportunity to have no criminal record or blemish in their background. At the end, they sit in front of a panel to tell their story. The panel is looking for consequences and atonement.
John continues to let the kids know they don’t have to give in to these influences on the road.
Officer Ryan Hardy helps the kids with boxing and other sports programs that MPAL offers. He believes that familiarity is key to building relationships with these children and he sometimes brings his own children to the facility to interact with the MPAL children. He prefers these children to see the human side of him. He lets them know he’s more than just a uniform, even proving it by sometimes showing up in casual clothes.
Ryan, who has been with MPAL for three years, loves to see the kids come and go. Whether they came in a bit rowdy or shy, they leave with discipline, respect for others and respect for themselves. Ryan believes in not holding their hands and letting them lead; eventually they will lead others.
These programmes, BBBS NH, MPAL and MYTURN (another Manchester organization dedicated to supporting at-risk youth that I have previously reported on) are all viable organizations that can transform the lives of our young residents at no cost.
Robert at BBBS NH knows this first hand. Upon returning from the military, he began working with a mentor who was a successful businessman. Robert rose through the ranks in sales and finance, but felt the industry drain his soul. Now he was able to offer the same type of guidance and mentoring that he had. Just as he struck gold in interventions and support, he wanted to give back to others in hopes of positively impacting their lives. 52-year-old Robert is in a great place in his life and role. In his position, he helps these children and meets great people who also want to give something back.
The outlook seems bleak, but we can give hope to families and children. People tend to look down on immigrants and the culture they brought to America, but I believe we need to embrace some of the community and family values that they come to our shores with. Let each teach one. We all need to get involved and start building villages.
These stories are part of the Common Ground initiative, which aims to highlight the diversity of our communities with stories of people the average Granite Stater might not get to see or meet, clarify misconceptions, and find the threads that connect us all as Connecting a New Hampshire Parish. They are shared by partners in the Granite State News Collaborative. Visit collaborativenh.org for more information.