Local couple helps provide futures for incarcerated youths

The following article, by Barbara Polan, was published in the Community Advocate, on June 10, 2011 http://www.communityadvocate.com/?p=10271

Leaving behind his career in investment banking in 1987, Northborough resident Scott Larson, along with his wife, Hanne, started a Christian faith-based program to help incarcerated youth during their detention and after their release.

They started the nonprofit organization both because Scott felt called by God to do so and because he saw the young people as possessing qualities not typically credited to them.

“I came to see that many of the youth in jail were leaders,” he said. “If someone is able to make money on the streets – especially leading a gang and making money while half the people are trying to kill you and the other half are trying to arrest you, you have serious leadership ability. It’s just poorly channeled.”

The program is called Straight Ahead Ministries.

“[It] is an international nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing recidivism among juvenile offenders through various programs in youth lock-up centers and re-integration services after release,” Scott said.

To reach an incarcerated juvenile, the ministry runs programs in youth detention centers. Those programs include a variety of ways for the young people to participate.

“We start in juvenile facilities by running weekly Bible discussion groups, drug and alcohol recovery groups, leadership training events, tutoring and programs with speakers or music groups,” Scott said.

Since its inception, the organization has expanded.

“After we had run programs in detention centers for a few years, we saw the big need for follow-up and aftercare services when youth got out. In 1990, we opened a home in Westborough for up to seven of these young men to live with us upon their release,” he said.

The success rate of the program was remarkable.

“Of the youth who went through that [Westborough] home,” Scott said, “less than 6 percent were re-arrested, compared with the national average of nearly 60 percent.”

All youth detention centers are welcome to invite Straight Ahead into their facility and the group’s services are available to all interested juveniles there. According to Scott, many of the young people in the centers are interested in participating.

“On average about 35 to 40 percent of the youth attend the programs. They are all voluntary,” he said.

Currently, the program reaches approximately 5,000 juveniles a year, ranging in age from 14 to 22, at more than 300 detention centers across the United States, including 50 in Massachusetts, and five countries. There are 24 staff members and 150 volunteers in New England alone.

Scott still leads the organization, working in administration, doing outreach to juvenile offenders and continuing to work directly with the youngsters.

One particular success story about the Straight Ahead Ministries that sticks with Scott is that of a kid who completely turned his life around and went into a profession helping other juveniles.

“Brian was a young man who we met when he was arrested at 14. After being locked up for two years, he moved into the aftercare home that we ran for up to seven boys.

“He lived with us for two years, then went on to Wheaton College in Illinois.

“From there he went to law school and today is the deputy director of New Jersey’s Child Behavioral Health Services,” Scott said.

Looking to the future, Straight Ahead has recently opened a facility in Lynn, where they are working with 160 young adults being released from lock-up. Most had previously been active gang members.

“ We have seen powerful things happen between formerly rival gang members as they [ have worked] together to feed the homeless, have come together to launch a church and [have started] several small businesses to employ others coming out; many [of them] have now joined our staff there. The re-arrest rate is 14.5 percent among those who are involved in our programs compared with 60 percent who were not. We are closing on a new ministry center to house all of our programs in Lynn on June 24,” he said.

In addition, there are plans to open a center in the Main South area of Worcester, where the group already works with 85 youths.

Scott also suggested ways for local residents to help Straight Ahead.

“We can use volunteers to run Bible discussion groups or drug and alcohol recovery groups in juvenile facilities, [and we can also use help from] those who want to mentor youth coming back to Worcester, and those who would be open to employing some of these youth.”

For more information about or to contact Straight Ahead Ministries, visit www.straightahead.org.

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June 13, 2011 at 11:30 am Leave a comment

Greatest Weightlifter of All-Time

From time to time, Straight Ahead schedules special speakers to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with incarcerated youth. This week we welcome Ryan Morton, from England, who won the Bronze medal for Weightlifting at the 2011 British Masters Championship. Ryan is traveling throughout New England with speaking engagements in thirteen youth lock-up facilities over the course of six days.  In addition to demonstrating proper lifting techniques and holding facility-wide Dead Lift competitions, he is also sharing how his faith in Jesus Christ transformed his life, and he offers the teenagers an opportunity to trust Christ for themselves.

I was with Ryan on Monday at a lock-up facility south of Boston. Twelve boys, aged 12-16, and three staff were present. After sharing a bit about how he got involved in competitive weight lifting and his personal achievements in the sport, he changed directions and began to talk about the greatest weightlifter who ever lived. “I can Dead Lift close to 600 pounds and some of my mates can do even more. But none of us can compete with the greatest weightlifter of all time, Jesus Christ. Jesus lifted the weight of the sins of the entire world and placed them on himself. He lifted the weight of the sins of everyone in this room so that by believing in Him you can have your sins forgiven and receive eternal life.”

The Bible says “our griefs He Himself bore, and our sorrows He carried…He Himself bore the sin of many, and interceded for the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:4, 12). I will be thankful throughout eternity to Jesus for lifting my sin onto His shoulders and bearing the weight of its penalty so that I might live.

May 5, 2011 at 8:40 am Leave a comment

Lynn Youth Outreach Groups Make Pitch for Funds

LYNN – With his imposing stature and steely glare, Francisco Paulino, a former leader in Lynn’s Crips gang, used to spend his days stirring up trouble on city streets.

Now, with the help of Straight Ahead Ministries, he has transformed into a role model for city youth who may be leaning toward following in his violent footsteps.

“I realized that maybe I didn’t have to wear blue when I got out of jail, or gang bang…that I didn’t have to do none of that anymore,” he said. “I felt like they gave me hope and talked to me about things that I didn’t see possible.”

Hundreds of kids like Paulino have been helped by Straight Ahead since it was founded in 1991, but with looming budget cuts, the program, and others like it, may be headed toward a dead end. With that in mind, city leaders gathered at Lynn Police Dept. headquarters Wednesday to stress the importance of garnering additional funding.

“We’re pleading for more money to make sure these programs remain a priority,” said Maroli Licardie, executive director at Family & Children’s Service of Greater Lynn. “Potential budget cuts might mean these programs won’t exist next year. We want to continue them and provide the youth with programs so that the city will become a better place to live.”

Gang-involved arrests in the city are on the rise, according to attorney Barbara Kaban of the Children’s Law Center on Union Street, with 288 tallied in 2009 and 333 in 2010. “The average age of kids being inducted into gangs is 11-13 years old and they stay involved way into their 20s,” she said. “We’re all working hard to reduce violence, but we still have a bad gang problem in Lynn.”

In an effort to curb those numbers, city programs have been created through the Shannon Anti-Gang Violence program, which funds 28 municipalities for law enforcement suppression of gangs, intervention with youth in the juvenile justice system as well as those currently in gangs. However, funding has slowly begun to dwindle. In fiscal 2009, the program was funded at $13 million, which plummeted to $6.5 million in fiscal 2010 and $4 million in 2011.

Equally hit hard are the Youth Violence Prevention Programs run statewide, which are funded by the Department of Public Health. Fiscal 2009 was at $3.9 million, which dropped to $2 million in 2010 and $1.5 million in 2011.

Still, day or night, Antonio Gutierrez of Straight Ahead is out on the streets at all hours, talking to kids about steering away from gangs and directing them down the path to positive activities.

“It hurts, because it will leave these kids without another option,” he said. “But we can’t turn our backs if the money gets cut because the battle continues and we’re just getting started.”

Other groups on hand at the meeting included Teen Scene, a violence prevention drop-in center at Family & Children’s Service and KAYA (Khmer Americans Youth in America), which is offered at the Lynn Community Health Center.

Police chief Kevin Coppinger stressed the importance of the youth groups remaining in the city.

“Every bit of help that we can get to make the city a safer place is a win-win for everyone,” he said.

By Robin Kaminski / The Daily Item

March 11, 2011 at 1:02 pm Leave a comment

Hitting Curveballs

I like to be prepared. Although I have been leading Bible studies in lock-up facilities for many years, I still don’t like winging things. I like to know where I’m headed and how to get there.  When I have a well thought out lesson plan I plan on sticking to it. But there are times when sticking to the plan is not the right thing to do.

Last week I prepared a Bible study lesson on three keys to living a successful Christian life. Two boys showed up, both first-timers. After the three of us introduced ourselves, Darren* shot a glance at the kid across the table, “Should I…?” he asked. The other boy hesitated, shaking his head, “Uh, I don’t know. Maybe.” I didn’t know what was coming. Then Darren showed me his forearm.  He had half a dozen slashes from elbow to wrist. The blood had dried hours ago but the evidence of his self-mutilation was obvious. “I used a pen until the staff took all my pens away. Then I used my fingernail.”

In that moment in was clear that chucking my lesson plan was the right thing to do. This young man had had a tough week, to say the least. Not having developed the coping skills needed to process the stress in his life, he cut himself. Kids sometimes share that they have become so desensitized to life that they cut in order that they might feel. I knew that Darren wouldn’t have volunteered that information unless he wanted to talk about it.  The staff already knew but he wanted to get some feedback from one of the “church people.”

When you get a curveball like this it is hard to know in the moment what direction to take the conversation. It was clear from what Darren shared that he regretted cutting himself and that his actions left him full of guilt and shame. While I couldn’t relate to his experience directly, having never self-mutilated, I could relate to feelings of guilt, condemnation, and shame. Every time I sin I feel these to a certain extent. And when I do, I feel unworthy of God’s love, grace, and forgiveness. Thankfully this is not how God wants me to feel. And that is the message I shared with Darren.

We are not to wallow in guilt. “A righteous man falls seven times, but rises again” (Proverbs 24:16). We are not to condemn ourselves, for God doesn’t condemn us. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). What we are to do is confess our sins to God and He will forgive us according to His faithfulness and justice (1 John 1:9), even cleansing us from a guilty conscience (Hebrews 9:14).

What a Wonderful Savior!

*name changed

February 8, 2011 at 3:36 pm Leave a comment

Like a child

At about the same time, the disciples came to Jesus asking, “Who gets the highest rank in God’s kingdom? “For an answer Jesus called over a child, whom he stood in the middle of the room, and said, “I’m telling you, once and for all, that unless you return to square one and start over like children, you’re not even going to get a look at the kingdom, let alone get in. Whoever becomes simple and elemental again, like this child, will rank high in God’s kingdom. What’s more, when you receive the childlike on my account, it’s the same as receiving me.   Matthew 18: 1-4 (The Message)

If you are ever accused of being naive or simple, count it a blessing. God wants you to enjoy life, renewing your mind to childlike simplicity is the best way to start.  Anonymous
Last week at SS we discussed the value of going to God in prayer as a little child would.  Many in the class found that refreshing.  Some attributes of a child are: Dependant on parents, innocence, a teachable heart, curious, receptive, full of wonder, not clouded by cynicism, naive, and simple.   I read the following on a random blog as well.  “Children have big imaginations and big dreams. Children look up to their parents. Children love new experiences and adventures. Children love to laugh. Children smile when they are happy and cry when they are sad. Children are simple and they don’t worry about every disease on the news and every infomercial for the next great thing.”

When it comes to praying as a child those of us who have the joy of working with kids in lock up through Straight Ahead Ministry Bible study often get to experience what that sounds like.  There is no pretense, they pray using language normal to them, and instead of saying “amen” when they are done you might hear, “that’s it.”  As a leader we need to make sure we do not use language that they are unfamiliar with or make our prayers intimidating to them.  God wants us to carry on a conversation with Him, just as we do with our friends and loved ones.  We don’t want to make our praying artificial or dutiful; God wants us to be real with Him.

Father, we are grateful for the freedom to approach you from the privileged son or daughter position.  I pray that we might renew our wonder of that precious relationship.  – Deb Erickson, Prayer Coordinator

January 25, 2011 at 11:15 am 2 comments

Pulling Strings

Last week Angel, our Worcester Aftercare Coordinator, received a call from a kid he used to meet with in a Department of Youth Services facility in the city. It had been three months since the young man’s release and Angel wondered if he would ever see him again. Out of the blue, the young man called, wanting to be connected to Straight Ahead. The problem? He was now living out-of-state.

Angel put a call in to a chaplain in that state to see if he could connect with the boy. As it turns out the chaplain leads a weekly community-based Bible study in the town in which the boy lives. And, as chance would have it (read: the sovereignty of God) the Bible study takes place in a building on the very street in which the boy is staying.

How amazing is that? The boy calls out of the blue from a state that Straight Ahead does not formally provide aftercare. Yet there is a chaplain from the juvenile lock-up facility who is willing to meet with the kid. His Bible study happens to take place in the same town the boy now lives and most astonishingly, on the same street!

Only God could work out the details like this. Our hope is that you will be encouraged by this latest evidence of God’s work behind the scenes. We are!

January 11, 2011 at 1:37 pm Leave a comment

Ready4Life 2010

Two years ago Straight Ahead ran a Ready4Life program at the Middleton House of Correction, about twenty miles north of Boston. Over 30 rival gang members came together for the three day event in order to consider thinking errors, life change, and new life in Christ. It was a powerful weekend and culminated with the rivals offering apologies and extending forgiveness. Since then, the prison has wanted Straight Ahead to conduct another Ready4Life program with a new batch of inmates. This time, a reporter from Lynn’s The Daily Item, tagged along. Click the link below to read his article.

http://www.thedailyitemoflynn.com/articles/2010/12/19/news/news03.txt

December 30, 2010 at 10:19 am Leave a comment

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