Troubled children coming out of the Arizona juvenile detention system are being invited to pair up with adult members of religious congregations and benefit from the values they can impart as mentors.
"I hate to see kids waste their lives," said Paul Teerlinck, a musician for Unity of the Southwest, a Mesa interfaith church.
A month ago, Teerlinck was matched with 15-year-old Rhen Rauger, who was released in April from Adobe Mountain juvenile correction unit north of Phoenix, where he was incarcerated for six months for criminal damage to property. Teerlinck has agreed to spend six to eight hours a month in activities with Rauger, providing an attentive ear, giving him a bowling and golfing partner, and being a sounding board. Both live in Casa Grande.
Juveniles have to volunteer, and mentors are not to use the experience for proselytizing, nor can they take the youth to their homes.
According to the program’s goals, mentors can give youth attention and opportunities to try new things; introduce them to new people, ideas and interests; promote achieving goals, encourage independent thinking and action, and help them to explore career options.
"If I can do this, I can stay out of trouble," Rauger said Sunday after a worship service at Unity, where the Rev. Julianne Lewis and state corrections officials showcased the program, which has signed up about 100 mentors so far. About a quarter of the 100-member Mesa congregation has volunteered for the program.
Driving the program has been the Rev. Cecily Lansford, who, in 1993, was the first woman hired as an Arizona state prison chaplain. In January 2002, she moved to the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections, responsible primarily for community relations. As a chaplain and pastor, she recognized that faith communities are rich with people with solid values who can impart those to teens.
"We find that youth, particularly in our system, are lacking in moral values in a lot of ways — an inability to make good decisions — and they also lack in many cases a caring adult who will be there for a young man or young woman and help them make decent decisions that are beneficial for the community," Lansford said.
"One of the big issues is trust," she said. Mentors can provide consistent and sustained trust. "These kids have been let down so many times," she said. "They have been promised so many things — and the one requirement we expect from the mentors is consistency . . . "
Lansford and mentor program manager Jack Forrester have been crisscrossing Arizona speaking to congregations and enrolling mentors. Volunteers are fingerprinted, undergo background checks and receive a four-hour orientation.
If a teenage boy from Kingman, for example, is about to be released from the juvenile facility at Buckeye, he would be told about the mentoring program and asked whether he wanted a faith-based or a general community mentor. If he wants a mentor from a congregation and he says he is Catholic, for example, an effort would be made to match him with a Catholic mentor. Ideally, the adult in Kingman could begin to make contact with the youth, such as a visit to Buckeye, before the teen’s release.
"We want to establish that relationship before they leave," Lansford said.
Parents must give their consent, and they and probation officers are involved in the process.
It gives a youth "an element of anticipation" in advance of returning to his community.
"They are going home to something and something good," she said. Mentors are asked to commit minimally for a year or until the youth turns 18.
"At that time, it is up to them if they want to continue the relationship, but it would no longer be under our aegis," Lansford said.
"They are going home to normalcy," Lansford said. "These kids have not witnessed or had role models to what ‘normal behavior’ is, what respectful behavior is between men and women, between children and adults, and it is modeled in the faith community for them."
At Unity of the Southwest, it’s being called the Youth Empowerment Program. Lewis said Lansford introduced the program.
"I listened to what God put in front of me to do," she said. "We were not actually looking for a project."
So far, Teerlinck and Rauger have twice golfed together, bowled once, eaten at a Chinese restaurant and have been "doing guy things and having fun," said Teerlinck, a veteran therapist.
"We like doing things together," Rauger said. Listening to music and "cracking jokes on each other" have been high points, he said.
"It gets my mind off people," he said, noting that he used to run with a gang and now spends time at Nazarene and Salvation Army churches in Casa Grande. He attends a school in Eloy, with half of his time in class and half working several jobs, including one with Job Corps, where he is learning construction.
"I think a lot of emphasis is put on telling kids what to do," Teerlinck said. But the most powerful teacher, he said, is someone putting aside talk and conveying "the positive aspect of living a straight life."