Last summer, 16-year-old Samantha Denis ran away from home 10 times.
Each time, she would hop the train in Middle Village, Queens and head to Brooklyn to be with a boy her parents forbid her from seeing. She would stay with him for up to two weeks at a time with little to eat and no change of clothes. He was in a street gang and smoked pot. She was in love.
In mid-September, all that changed. Denis enrolled in a peer mentoring program that helps young adults stay out of courts and prisons. Signing up seemed to her the only good option after her parents registered her as a juvenile delinquent in Queens Family Court.
In the end, a mentor is exactly what Denis believes she needed to turn her life around.
“I have two older sisters but they’re not really there to talk to,” Denis said. “I can tell my mentor anything and I don’t have to worry that she’ll run and tell my mom.”
Denis is one of more than 120 students participating in the Queens Adolescent Diversion Program of Community Mediation Services in Jamaica. Over the past 30 years, the program has used peer mentoring to keep more than 2,000 at-risk youth out of the criminal justice system.
But this initiative may soon come to an end. Struggling with a $3 billion state budget deficit, the state Office of Children and Family Services recently announced that it will not renew the program’s funding. Its current contract expires on Dec. 31st. For the first time in years, CMS will have to submit a new grant request. Administrators are not optimistic that that request will be funded.
“This funding has been incrementally cut over the last couple of years,” said John Harrison, associate executive director of youth programs at the agency. “They’ve been chipping away, chipping away, chipping away. At this point, right now, it just doesn’t seem to exist in their budget.”
The mentoring program began in 1980 after its founder, Mark Kleiman, an attorney, witnessed firsthand the failures of the juvenile justice system. It quickly became the cornerstone of the entire agency and remains the only peer mentoring-based alternatives to justice program in Southeast Queens. Each year hundreds of youth between the ages of 9 and 17 who run away from home, cut school, do drugs and alcohol or exhibit violent behavior are referred to CMS.
Those youth are then paired with an undergraduate or graduate student mentor. Early on, the two develop a list of goals that can be accomplished during the semester. Going back to school, learning how to communicate with parents, and building self esteem are often on that list.
After this goal-setting session, the pair plans activities together. When former peer mentor Venus Loadholt found out that her client liked music, she took him to his first show on Broadway. When York College student Colleen McKenzie wanted to inspire her client to return to school, she took her on a campus tour. What makes the program effective is that it provides teens with an opportunity to learn from and open up to an older peer.
“This program is absolutely necessary in this community,” Loadholt said. “These kids are getting to an age where they are forced to deal with issues like rape, guns and drugs. A whole lot of them are in prison. We need this service to try to prevent some of this stuff.”
Denis’ mentor has inspired her to excel at school, volunteer at an animal shelter and submit an application for a job at Toys R’ Us. She no longer sees her ex-boyfriend.
“She told me that guys will come and go, but I have to better myself,” Denis said. “I realized that he was a bad influence on me and that I have to concentrate on me.”
The program’s supporters say it’s much cheaper to provide alternative assistance to youth, rather than lock them up. It costs the state on average $150,000 to $200,000 a year to house one adolescent in a juvenile correctional facility. The program currently manages more than 120 youngsters for a little more than $78,000 a year.
“It is enormously expensive to lock up young people in detention facilities,” said Robert Gangi, executive director of The Correctional Association of New York. “Not only are some of these alternatives to incarceration programs a lot less expensive but they also have a much higher success rate in helping to turn young peoples’ lives round and create productive members of the community.”
Despite these benefits, the program is slated to be cut under a 2-year, $5 billion deficit reduction plan Gov. David Paterson announced last month. Paterson’s proposal is still awaiting legislative approval.
In the meantime, participants anxiously wait to learn the fate of a program they see as vital.
“If this program ended, it would be horrible,” Denis said. “If it weren’t for this, there’s no telling where I would be today. This program changed my life.”