"I like it," said Brian, a 16-year-old from South Richmond Hill. "It changed my life around. I go to school now. Before I never went to school. Now I have a job. I take responsibility for things."
The Leadership Empowerment Center was set up by South Jamaica resident Rachel Gordon as a pilot program under the city Department of Probation to teach youth entrepreneurship qualities and self-esteem.
"These are youth who are on probation," she said. "Some of them are repeat offenders and this is their last hope before incarceration. We have seen astonishing character differences in the children."
There were 12 youths between ages 14 and 18 enrolled in the program that started in February. On June 3, 11 of the teens will graduate, Gordon said.
"For these kids, that is excellent," said Sarah Blanford, the branch director for the Department of Probation.
The program meets Wednesdays at the Family Court building and Gordon and probation representatives lead the youths in activities, including a role-playing exercise in which they pretended they were in war and had to save a team member, dreamed up a community-oriented business and discussed business and leadership skills.
"Before it was dull and boring," said Fatima, an 18-year-old Long Island City resident who landed in probation after fighting with another girl. "We used to just watch videos. This is great. We went on a trip into Manhattan."
The activities are designed to boost the youths' confidence and teach them how to behave, communicate and succeed, said Cheryl Heath, one of the probation officers. And the Department of Probation is looking to expand the program in Queens and establish one in Brooklyn, she said.
"We've seen the kids grow," she said. "They have better insight into what they want to do with their life. It eliminated a lot of negativity in their esteem and attitude."
Fatima wants to finish her general equivalency degree and go to nursing school, she said. Patricia, 16, of Woodhaven, wants to be a forensic psychologist, and 15-year-old Fatou, who was also charged after fighting a girl, plans to go to law school.
"I want to be better," said Fatou, of Rosedale, who is participating in the program as a condition of her parole. "I learned everything I needed to know here. I was incarcerated for a year, so I had a lot of time to find myself."
For the youths, the program is an alternative to incarceration, Blanford said. To participate, the teens must not have any prior arrests, must have family support and must be willing to learn, she said.
"This is considered a high-risk population," she said. "They were placement bound. If not for this they would be in placement."
And the teens, although young, do realize the opportunity the program afforded them.
"If I didn't have Miss Rachel, I don't want to think about where I would be," Patricia said. "She makes everyone feel comfortable, and she inspired me to communicate with everyone."
The Empowerment Center also gave the youths a chance to talk to someone about their lives.
"Before I needed guidance," Fatima said. "Now it feels like I'm on the right track."
Reach reporter Courtney Dentch by e-mail at news@times
©2004 Community News Group
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