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News Alert: For The Good, Inc. Announces Planning of Teen Center for Arts and Education

Teen Center for Arts and Education 

Narrative

The Study Buddy Club (SBC) is a tutoring, mentoring and cultural enrichment program started by For The Good, Inc. (FTG) in 2002 as a direct result of the challenge of area gang activity. Since then it has grown to become a reliable educational enhancement of Utica, and a way to help inner-city, at-risk youth (ages 13-19) get help with their grades, make positive connections, and to explore college-life and gain advice for their future. 

For its previous operation, the SBC has consisted of busing at-risk youth from Utica to Hamilton College. There, they receive a great lunch at the dining hall then one-on-one, hands-on tutoring from Hamilton College volunteers. While at Hamilton College, the SBC youth also take part in activities organized by Hamilton College. These can include various college sports activities, group dance, science experiments, nature activities, confidence-building group activities, and lectures by Hamilton College professors, leaders, and staff. There was a time when funding permitted when SBC students and tutors would take a field trip to NYC!

FTG acts as an organizing body for the SBC. FTG staff works with local middle and high schools to arrange for announcements to be made about upcoming SBC meetings and recruit students. In addition, FTG gets permission from students and parents and collects grade statistics for each student involved in the program to track progress along the student’s involvement in the SBC. FTG also helps with grass-roots recruiting of students by working with community members, parents, and other organizations. 

For the past two years, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Study Buddy Club has needed to scale back its in-person tutoring, as well as how often the SBC meets. FTG conducted tutoring sessions via Zoom, as was customary for online instruction in schools during the pandemic. 

Shortly after the pandemic became more manageable, Cassandra Harris-Lockwood, CEO of FTG, met with principal members of the Municipal Housing Authority (MHA), who instituted a branch of the SBC on MHA grounds. They have been operating for the past couple of semesters, and have had good turnout and results. 

As a result of FTG’s affiliation with the College Community Partnership for Police Reform, participation in the SBC has been agreed upon by SUNY Poly, Utica University, Colgate University, MVCC and Herkimer College have all agreed to participate in the SBC. FTG has also recently acquired use of the DeSales Center for use for in-town SBC meetings. Two planning sessions have been held at this facility. FTG’s latest SBC session at the DeSales Center included tutors from SUNYPoly with a commitment for further participation in expanding the program. 

The SBC would also like to foster a relationship with the District Attorney, the Courts, and the Utica Police Department. Mark Ziobro, Master Social Worker and Study Buddy Coordinator, has been in conversations with Captain James Holt and Officer Joshua Sweet of the UPD. Mark met with Officer Sweet, who stated he will pass out SBC registration forms to his Juvenile Dept. to assist in recruitment of non-violent youth offenders. Additionally, Captain Holt emailed Sergeant Michael Curley, a School Resource Officer in the Utica Schools to assist in recruitment at the school level. Mark Ziobro is aware of the need for school buy-in to make this happen, and he and Scheyla Lugo-Pagán (mentioned below) are in the process of contacting Proctor for a meeting. 

District Attorney, Scott McNamara, stated to Harris-Lockwood, that he is very interested in doing what he can to make this plan work. We await word from Family Court Judge Randy Caldwell on his assessment and desire to engage in this new program.

SBC Expansion Vision 

Part 1

Going forward in the SBC expansion, the SBC will specifically include a mental health component. Cassandra Harris-Lockwood and Mark Ziobro have aligned with Scheyla Lugo-Pagán (Direct Support Professional at Upstate Cerebral Palsy and Mental Health Advocate) about ways to bring mental health support into the SBC. Lugo-Pagán is a new FTG Board Member. Lugo-Pagán brings with her Sade Cardin Licensed Social Worker and Eric Maddox, Mental Health Advocate/Life Coach. In addition, L. Rich Davis, LMSW with 30 years’ experience, 20+ in DOC, is a Black colleague of FTG and is committed to this new initiative

The plan of this new initiative will be to rotate each SBC participant to a social worker or counselor during their time at the center. This will avoid the stigma associated with Social Work/Child Protective Services. Each youth will complete a 15-20 minute assessment to assess for mental health needs and to refer to outside agencies if indicated and agreed upon by youth. These referrals would range from connection to therapy services, case managers, or food banks/resources as indicated. An assessment form would be completed prior to implementation. 

The purpose of this initiative will to (a) destigmatize mental health and (b) make resources for mental health support available to the at-risk youth in a way that comes alongside them and meets them where they’re at, rather than to make them feel that they are being singled out for assistance or being placed in ‘the system.’ 

Scheyla Luga-Pagán, as indicated above, is now a board member of For The Good, Inc. and will help facilitate the mental health piece, and will continue working with Cassandra Harris-Lockwood and Mark Ziobro for implementation. 

Community Gardens become Urban Agriculture Training

Part 2

The second piece of the SBC expansion will be to utilize the Community Gardens, run by For The Good, Inc., to be used as a way to further community involvement for SBC participants. For the past ten years FTG has successfully hosted the Oneida County Summer Youth Employment Program. Never has a child had a bad day in the garden. 

The gardens are a useful way to have SBC participants gain hands-on knowledge and training and learn how to use these skills. This training will involve such things as gardening, planting of crops, weeding, basic landscaping, and working with a team. 

In conjunction with this, the SBC participants, and their families, will be able to take home organic, fresh vegetables to (a) alleviate the cost many have from living in at-risk, impoverished neighborhoods and (b) improve their diet at a zero cost to them by eating healthy, wholesome food. 

Additionally, working in the gardens will have positive repercussions all around. It has been noted that ‘green jobs’ like working in the garden, can have positive effects on individual’s mental health. Agriculture work will help them break the confines that often tethers at-risk youth to unhealthy lifestyles—and even crime—for a sense of belonging. However, secondly, it will serve to build their self esteem and help them to build usable lifelong skills establishing a connection to the environment. 

There is evidence from research that getting your hands dirty, and having contact with the soil and the Earth, increases Serotonin in the brain, which can lead to happy feelings. Serotonin is a natural anti-depressant that can ward off depression and other mental health issues. 

This corresponds with a second effect—a ‘harvest high,’ a release of Dopamine in the brain, from harvesting food, from seeing things grow, and the byproducts that go along with that. This release of Dopamine can cause euphoria or happy feelings naturally. This can also assist with decreasing mental health symptoms and feelings and help to push people toward feeling better. 

The finding here, also, is that many of the SBC participants that participate in this program may be suffering from depression, anxiety, or other, undiagnosed mental health conditions, and in fact not realize it. 

Putting it All Together

During the summer months, youth will split their time between the Urban Ag program in the morning and in the afternoons be engaged in the Thinking for a Change (T4C) more often used with inmates or people discharged from corrections. We intend to challenge their consciousness of fatalism—or the thought that one cannot surmount their current life circumstances—keeps at-risk youth stultified and stuck. By teaching them valuable life skills (gardening, enhanced scholastics, improved social support networks), they can learn to break the barriers that have thus far held them back.

Inclusion of performance and creativity in the space is also intended as this generation of youth are adept at self-promotion and performance. We intend to make use of our expertise in performance and production by providing a regular opportunity for artists to perform on the stage. 

There has been a recent decision to establish an actual Coffeehouse at the  Teen Center for Arts and Education at the DeSales site. The presence of a local personality Hip Hop DJ, Rev LaDana Clark of Church in the Hood has led us to select her to be the Youth Worker for this new operation. She is a performance artist, ordained minister, former service woman and former police officer. She is a youth organizer and qualified to direct, correct, advise and critique developing talent. The Center has a stage and FTG has sound equipment and sound system appropriate for today’s performance oriented youth to be recognized on stage. We look forward to further development of this concept.

Local coffee houses have been contacted to provide coffee and refreshments for the youth on a rotating basis. This way we can combine a safe space for social, gathering with academic support, access to mental health support, incentive to polish art skills and further develop those skills in a quasi-adult coffee house setting. There will be Chess, puzzles and other mind focusing activities such as coding workshops available or our young people.

Its main purpose is to help the at-risk youth build a social network, learn (and use) problem solving skills, and undergo cognitive restructuring. Additionally, the time spent by the SBC students/at-risk youth would serve to keep them out of range of criminal elements that could harm them, give them exercise, food, and social support they may not receive elsewhere. 

**
You can help us provide this safe space for youths that often fall through the cracks. Your support is crucial to help us provide this space for youths, address their mental health, and help them prepare for a bright future. Donations can be made though check to For The Good, Inc. (1113 Linwood Place, Utica NY 13501), or by calling FTG at 315.797.2417.

Mark Ziobro
Mark Ziobrohttps://uticaphoenixnet.wpcomstaging.com
Mark is the current Managing Editor for The Utica Phoenix, and a Central New York Native.
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