In 2009, Roca, a 22-year-old youth development organization in Chelsea, Mass., launched the Young Men's Violence Intervention Project in four Massachusetts' communities. RWJF provided funding for the first year of this three-year initiative. The model combines intensive case management, work experience and life skills training to help high-risk young men learn and practice the skills they need to get a job and stay employed. Roca works with some of the most disengaged young people in the Boston area.
Nationally, 10 to 15 percent of all young people ages 14 to 24 are disconnected from work or education, and addressing youth violence is a public health priority. "America's young people are dying. They are dying quickly from guns and gangs and slowly from poverty and isolation," says Molly Baldwin, president of Roca who was the executive director during the time of the grant.
At the heart of the Roca model is the recognition that intensive and repeated efforts are required to influence the behavior of at-risk young men. The transformational relationship is essential. "It is the relentlessness of a youth worker who shows up day after day, no matter what, that awakens hope in a young person," says Baldwin.
Typically, participants join a work crew, make a mistake that costs them their job and are reengaged by youth workers. Project staff members recognize that it can sometimes take 18 to 24 months for high-risk young people to put in 60 days of work. "This is a relapse model. The program allows for multiple entries," says Baldwin. "We do not want to lose these young men."
During the first year of the project, Roca signed contracts with 11 public and private entities in the Boston-area communities of Chelsea, Revere and East Boston to provide them work crews. Workers were paid through these contracts to undertake jobs such as trash and graffiti removal, lot cleanup and landscaping.
In the first year, Roca enrolled 112 young men, ages 16–24, in the Young Men's Violence Intervention Project. More than three-quarters of them had previous encounters with the criminal justice system. Many were also involved with gangs, had a history of substance abuse and lacked a work history or a high school diploma.
By the end of the first year, 86 youth remained active in the program, 35 had been placed in unsubsidized employment, with some continuing to receive other services. Of this group, 21 remained employed for at least 30 days and five remained employed for at least 120 days, and 15 had reentered the criminal justice system.