Programming for At-Risk Youth

April 1, 2013, Department, by Laura L. Porter

Making a difference to at-risk youth requires a balance of patience and supportProgramming can be difficult, even in the most ideal situations. When programming for at-risk youth, the difficulty multiplies exponentially. Trust is a difficult obstacle to surmount with these young men and women, and it is vital for success. Many adults in their lives are not positive influences, so we have to work harder to ensure as professionals we create a safe, trusting environment, conducive to growth and development. For trust to develop, they need constant support and a kept promise that you will be there for them.

The North Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (NCDJJDP) defines an at-risk youth as “a juvenile who has not been adjudicated (found guilty or not guilty of a crime), delinquent or undisciplined; or has demonstrated significant inappropriate or anti-social behavior that would suggest a high probability of court involvement; and/or has one or more identified risk factors for delinquency” ( Though two programs I have directed, I have learned firsthand the importance that dedicated time plays in the success of at-risk youth programs.

In 2011, a local mentoring program cooperated with local master gardeners and the parks and recreation department to integrate a special section into the community garden for at-risk youth. The project took place throughout the summer, aiming to teach the youths involved about the skills and processes involved in gardening and give them something to be proud of through their hard work. When the season drew to a close, several participants entered the county fair, and one even won first prize for a flower arrangement made from plants he grew. The next stage of this project was to teach them how to cook with their produce. Over the four-month program, the young men involved, most of whom had been court appointed to attend, found they were good at something and were recognized for that ability with monetary rewards and ribbons from entries into the county fair. To them, this was a great success, and they often spoke of the community garden and how they wanted to do it again.

The second program was a week-long art camp, and only young men and women who were referred to the program were eligible to participate. With the help of local musicians and artists, the participants worked on art projects and a song and dance routine, which they presented to their families and friends on the final day of camp. This program worked well because it was consistent and there were many volunteers available, and since a church hosted, the youth were exposed to people from a variety of religious and social backgrounds. They made lasting friendships and formed positive relationships with adults, which is often one of the difficulties when working with at-risk youth.

Remaining consistent, honest, and available with boundaries has proven successful with this demographic. Because there are not typically many programs that strictly take referrals for these at-risk youth, young adults already involved in the justice system, opening the doors to parks and recreation facilities for them may help create lasting attachments to their community. A 2005 study in The Journal of Early Adolescence found factors significant to youth development, which they call The Five C’s of Positive Youth Development: competence, confidence, connection, character, and caring. When youth feel connected to their community and that their community cares, they are less likely to become involved in anti-social behavior ( ing_1068.pdf). Creating specific programs for these young adults should be a long-term investment and vision.

Departments should make contact with the local juvenile justice center and ask what programs are needed for at-risk juveniles and what types of programs are currently provided to them. Even if a youth is just working as a junior summer camp counselor, his or her behavior and development could change in weeks. Be patient, and do not be discouraged if you do not see results immediately. It also takes a willingness to believe in helping them. It can prove as beneficial to you as it can to them.

Laura L. Porter graduated from Catawba College in 2007 and has been working with youth of all backgrounds for more than 10 years (