A program started about four years ago has provided youngsters in trouble another avenue for growth and a return to a good life. The program now seeks interested people to be involved and make it an even more successful program.
It is the Youth Court Mentor program with DeSoto County Court. Joy Smith is the Youth Court Mentor Facilitator, an AmeriCorps Vista contracted to the court under DeSoto County Youth Court Judge Craig Treadway.
Smith said the program is an outreach initiative where youngsters that have offended or are at risk of offending are matched with people in the community to become a role model for that youngster.
“That child is typically of a lower economic status,” Smith explained. “They may be in a single-parent home, if they’re lucky maybe in a two-parent home. They just need help and a direction and to have a mentor speak into their lives, give them exposure to different things like going to college or learning a skill or trade and to show them what a healthy family looks like.”
Grants Administrator Bryan Riley with the Board of Supervisors said current Circuit Court Judge Celeste Wilson started the program when she served as Juvenile Court Judge, a position now held at Judge Treadway.
“It was started in 2014 because she had two options at the time: either send the kid to jail or send the kid back home with the parents,” Riley said. “She developed a program so that there was another option to keep the kids from coming in-and-out of jail constantly, rehabilitate them and get them on the right path.”
Riley added the funding for the program is provided through a grant with the Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi.
Smith said she continues to seek people willing to be youth mentors, a role that involves a couple hours a week but a lifetime of rewards. A minimum of two hours each week is required between youngster and mentor, or eight hours a month.
That time is documented in a twice-a-month contact Smith makes with the mentor.
“On the first and the 15th, I check with the mentor and find out what they did and for how long,” Smith explained. “I’m going to make an actual documentation, so when that child goes to court, that’s proof for that child. It’s another positive source or advocate for that child when they go to court.”
“Mentors are amazing and do such great things in a child’s life because they are not a parent and they’re not exactly a friend,” Smith pointed out. “They’re that extra voice within that child’s life that gives them a voice and another avenue to live their life. Kids are often so influenced by their mentors that they want to mentor themselves.”
A youth mentor first goes through an application process that includes a background check and an orientation session. Smith said once cleared, they are paired with youngsters who have similar interests.
“I match them specifically,” said Smith. “I have a child who likes Mississippi State so I will pair that child with a Mississippi State graduate, for instance. How they specifically spend time together, I leave that up to them because the concentration is on the relationship. That’s why the matching process is so crucial.”
Smith wants mentors who can show the youngster how they can be a valuable part of society.
“I get a lot of teachers and I get a lot of police officers,” Smith said. “They are people that are already motivated and already have the mindset of seeing the trouble in the world and are wanting to correct it.
Smith added there is a great need for youth mentors across the county. Youngsters who are entered into the program may primarily be from DeSoto County, but regardless of where they are from, if they have committed the crime in the county, they have to have their trial here and can be placed in the program.
“Unlike adult court where you just get sentenced, the youth court and juvenile court is about rehabilitation,” said Smith. “We’re trying to make it better for you before you turn age 18. It’s all about changing that child.”
Smith asked that people wanting to be involved in the Youth Mentor Program, or who want to find out more about it, contact her at her office in the Mills E. Barbee Juvenile Justice Center in Hernando, 311 W. South Street. Smith’s office phone number is 662-469-8371 and her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bob Bakken is Staff Writer for the DeSoto Times-Tribune.