It is hard to believe that the Youth Empowerment Project is only 11 years old. Curious as to how the organization has made such great strides in a relatively short time, I asked Melissa Sawyer, YEP’s Executive Director and one of its founders, to tell me about its early days. Sawyer, along with two of her colleagues, conceived of YEP in the course of their work at the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana. Its initial mission, which has significantly broadened since its inception, was to provide support to kids who were trying to find their way forward after getting into trouble and, consequently, entering the juvenile justice system.

The national statistics on recidivism among young people in this country are alarming; New Orleans, unfortunately, is no exception. And then there’s the question of safety. As difficult as it is to imagine, some of the kids who ended up in juvenile correctional facilities were safer there than they were on the streets, and YEP’s founders lost many young people who became victims of violent crime upon their release from incarceration. It was in the face of that reality that the Youth Empowerment Project was founded in 2004, as the first program in Louisiana to support children exiting from jail.

The scope of YEP’s services is impressive; it has an annual budget of over $3 million, serves more than 1,000 young people, operates eight different programs and has seven sites throughout the New Orleans area. But what those numbers, as compelling as they are, don’t necessarily convey is that YEP has likely saved the lives of some of those kids – and has profoundly changed the lives of many more.

The vast majority of young people who participate in YEP’s programs come on their own volition, although this isn’t always the case. One of the organization’s most inspiring stories begins with a young man who, not that long ago, was facing jail time. Ordered by a judge to either go to jail or enter YEP’s NOPLAY program (New Orleans Providing Literacy to All Youth) to get his GED, he chose YEP. After successfully reaching his educational goals, he found that he was in a unique position to help others do the same. This man is now a full time YEP staff member who supports other young people to make positive life choices and attain their goals, and he has become a vocal advocate for underserved youth.

There are many components that help to explain the success of YEP. The critical ingredient, however, seems to be its underlying premise that, with the proper support and opportunities, young people – even those who are most at-risk for adverse life outcomes – can change the course of their lives. And that’s how YEP is making a difference.

The Scope of Support
The Scope of Support

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