Youth intervention workers say their work is as critical as early childhood services and their programs should receive the same respect from lawmakers.
The success stories of early childhood education are often touted, and lawmakers are loath to trim its budget.
Community programs for school-age children and teens don’t have the same level of recognition and political muscle, says Paul Meunier, director of services for the nonprofit Youth Intervention Programs Association (YIPA).
Meunier is out to change that.
He’s planned the first-ever YIPA Fest to rally nonprofits and other groups that provide services to older kids and teens. The one-day event on Sept. 20 at the TIES building in Falcon Heights is about better advocating for youth intervention programs and creating a stronger network of youth service providers.
“Our goal is to become as well known and well funded as early childhood education,” Meunier said. “We have the same positive outcomes and impacts. We just don’t have the awareness.”
Currently, the state of Minnesota spends $2.5 million a year on youth intervention programs. The money goes to nonprofits, city and school programs. It funds teen centers, after-school programs, summer camps and one-on-one services for at-risk teens, many in and out of foster care.
YIPA lobbies for its 124-member organizations throughout Minnesota. YIPA members helped 23,000 youth ages 6 to 18 each year.
“We know this stuff works. We know the kids that go through these programs do better in school. They do better in the community. They develop a pro-social attitude,” Meunier said. “Nine out of 10 do not have involvement with legal authorities while in the programs.”
The Legislature increased youth intervention program funding this year after several years of cuts.
“It’s easy to cut this stuff when budget times are tough. I think there is a perception of at-risk kids that they will turn out no good anyway. They are just throwaway kids,” Meunier said. “It’s just not true. They are not throwaway kids. It’s not a wasted investment.”
Kaylean Sweeter said she’s proof of that.
Social services removed Sweeter from her birth family when she was 13. She spent her teen years in foster care, aging out when she hit 18. All the rites of passage of young adulthood — college, first job — feel different for someone without a stable family.
“It was very stressful and scary. You get very intimidated very easily,” said Sweeter, 19, who attended Spring Lake Park High.
Case workers from the Emma B. Howe YMCA — a YIPA member — helped her navigate many of these milestones and challenges, including how to enroll at Hennepin Technical College, buy textbooks, talk to a teacher or boss about an issue.
Sweeter said her YMCA case workers have taught her to think things through before blurting something out.
“She will talk to me about, ‘What’s a better choice?”’ explained Sweeter, who lives in Fridley. “If I have an issue arise, they are the first people I go to.”
In high school, she acknowledges making some bad decisions, including skipping school, drinking alcohol and cursing at teachers. She said having guidance has changed her life course. She is now finishing up a culinary program and is starting a nursing program.
The Emma B. Howe YMCA in northwest Minneapolis and Coon Rapids uses state youth intervention money to provide individual case management services for at-risk youth like Sweeter, helping them with jobs, housing and education.