With funding running out, program turns to city leaders for more support

Trying to save an opportunity to help youth

December 09, 2005|By DOUG DONOVAN | DOUG DONOVAN,SUN REPORTER

Tiffany Respass was out of options nearly three years ago when she walked through the doors of a West Baltimore youth center established to support teenagers living in the city's most impoverished neighborhoods.

She was a 16-year-old mother of a 1-year-old daughter. Homeless. Out of work. Out of school. Leaving her newlywed husband at his Bethesda military base, Respass had returned to Baltimore only to find relatives unable to help.

"When she came to us, she was a mess," said Joe Smith, assistant director of Youth Opportunity, the federally funded city-run program that was Respass' last resort. "Today, she's turned it all around."

With the program, Respass, now 19 and divorced, has a high school equivalency certificate, a job and an apartment - and she is working on a degree in social work Everything is back on track," she said in an interview.

But the program, which started in March 2000 as a five-year effort, will be unable to help others like Respass after next summer, when its $44 million U.S. Department of Labor grant runs out. The program's managers have been warning of its demise since last year and have been operating on a one-year extension with the grant's remaining $6 million.

To persuade city leaders to help finance the program, the Mayor's Office of Employment Development has released a study detailing how Youth Opportunity has benefited the 4,300 young people it has served. Karen Sitnick, director of the office, presented the study to the City Council recently and pleaded for help in saving a program aimed at youth between the ages of 14 and 21.

"This is something we need," she told the council. "We know it works."

The report compares Youth Opportunity participants with hundreds of young people who enrolled but did not remain active at the program's two main centers - one in West Baltimore, the other in East Baltimore - or any of its three city satellite offices.

Active participants benefited from job training, GED classes, computer sessions, physical and mental health services and recreational activities - such as a recording studio, a pool table and a fitness center at the Westside facility.

Participants were also assisted by advocates at the centers who helped them identify professional interests and steered them toward careers in those fields through internships and jobs.

Robert Green, 21, of the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood, credits Youth Opportunity with keeping him off the streets since he was 18. Without the West Baltimore center, Green said, "I'd be locked up or I'd be dead."

According to the study, Youth Opportunity participants were less involved in criminal activity than the young people who enrolled but did not remain active. Still, 46 percent of participants who had been convicted before enrolling were caught up in crime again. Green, however, was part of the 54 percent who stayed straight - he is now a student at Coppin State University.

The study also showed other positive signs for those in the program compared with those who drifted away: They earned 35 percent more, worked more often, attended school more frequently and dropped out far less.

Nearly 500 participants earned high school diplomas while another 200 obtained GEDs, a rate that exceeded the comparison group's educational achievement, according to the report.

Female participants were less likely to get pregnant after having enrolled in the program than young women who did not actively participate. Still, 344 of the 960 girls who were active in Youth Opportunity ended up having children.

The program filled 2,000 jobs in the city for more than 600 employers, according to the study. And companies that hired Youth Opportunity participants gave them high praise on work habits, math and reading abilities, and interpersonal and communication skills.

"We are very proud of the results," said Ernest F. Dorsey, director of Youth Opportunity. But, he added, "the need still exists."

Whether the need will be answered depends on how successful Sitnick is over the next seven months in finding funds from government and private sources. She said she would need $3 million for the two centers to serve 1,000 young people.

"We have thousands of kids in the pipeline," she said. "We've had our first few graduate college."

Several City Council members appeared optimistic about the program's fate.

"If we have surplus money next year, I hope we can get Mayor Martin O'Malley to put money into Youth Opportunity," said Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young. "It's a worthwhile program. If we're going to reduce crime in this city, we can't afford not to fund programs that make a difference."

President Sheila Dixon, however, told Green and other participants to anticipate the worst by finding alternative programs aimed at young people living in poverty.

"If [the Westside center] does close," Dixon told Green at a recent council meeting, "don't go back to what you had been doing before."

doug.donovan@baltsun.com

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