By Deborah L.K. Spencer-Chun, President and CEO, Adult Friends for Youth
Adult Friends for Youth was founded in 1986 to provide healthy alternatives to gang membership and violence for youth living in low-income neighborhoods in Honolulu, HI, and other parts of Oahu. We rely on nondirective, nonjudgmental practices and emphasize academic achievement to encourage youth to take charge of their lives.
Our fiscal year 2020 grant awarded under OJJDP’s Comprehensive Anti-Gang Programs for Youth solicitation supports individual and group counseling for gangs and friendship groups with an average age of 15 to 16. Our approach to gang intervention is to work with a gang as a unit rather than serving individuals. To transform the life of one youth, we need to work with everyone that individual interacts with. The groups we serve average 15 to 20 youth.
One of the major advantages of working with an entire gang is the peer pressure exerted on each member—to show up to our weekly sessions and model the behaviors and decisionmaking we try to instill. We find that participants hold each other accountable when we’re not around.
OJJDP’s Comprehensive Gang Model provides Adult Friends for Youth with a structure to collaborate with community partners, implement a specialized curriculum, and advocate for the needs of youth involved in gangs. Our curriculum incorporates social-emotional learning and the development of positive coping skills. It provides experiential learning opportunities for youth—covering education, careers, social activities, culture, recreation, and community service—to help them transition from gang life back into the mainstream.
Our group counseling sessions are held either after school or for one class period during the school day. Staff establish a relationship with the group by engaging them in activities selected by the youth. We also work with participants individually to help them identify an alternative educational option or find employment, or to ensure they don’t miss any court appearances.
Our work sometimes requires crisis intervention. To avert a planned altercation last year, for example, one of our “redirectional specialists” worked with a high school administrator to remove members of two gangs from their campus to separate locations. Over the next several days, our staff talked with the youth about their underlying reasons for a fight, and reached out to older members of each gang. Ultimately, the gangs called a truce.
We consider our work a long-term, 24/7 commitment. Each youth has the cell phone number of two staff members and is encouraged to call for support or guidance at any time. Their cell phone is their lifeline, we tell participants. In fact, our support does not have a set termination date. If Adult Friends for Youth learns that a youth we worked with previously has reverted to past behaviors, we can continue where we left off, providing additional counseling.
Our nonprofit serves about 200 or more youth annually through in-school and neighborhood gang intervention counseling programs, with at least two-thirds graduating from high school or moving to the next grade level each year. In 2021, 92 percent of our participants reduced or terminated their violent behavior.
The journey these youth travel as they work to turn their lives around is not easy. But through intensive counseling and prosocial activities, a focus on education, and collaboration with community stakeholders, it is possible.
Points of view or opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.