KOKOMO, Ind. — Approximately 31 percent of young people who have been incarcerated get in trouble with the law after they are released, due to lack of support.
Five Indiana University Kokomo students and one faculty member are part of an IU program designed to reduce the recidivism rate, through mentoring services while they are in a juvenile program, and after their return to their communities.
Niki Weller, associate professor of sociology, is the campus liaison for Helping Offenders Prosper through Employment (HOPE) Mentoring program, which trains undergraduate students to serve as mentors to the incarcerated youth. Students from the Kokomo campus work with young men at the Logansport Juvenile Correctional Facility.
Employment access is a strong tool against recidivism, but most of these kids have zero background knowledge and don’t know where to begin or how to find a job,” said Weller. “The best way to help them is to give them the tools they need to succeed. Our students commit to going to the facility once a week for a year because they believe in the mission of HOPE that these youth deserve a second chance.”
The IU Kokomo students work with their mentees on creating résumés, talking about how to prepare for an interview, appropriate clothing, what kind of education they need for the jobs they want, and how to address the fact they’ve been incarcerated. They also provide emotional support if the mentee is having a bad week, or has concerns about what it will be like to be back in their communities, around people who have been bad influences.
For senior Stefanie Fuller, working with the incarcerated youth has been an eye-opening experience.
I went in with a bias about how they would behave or act, and that was torn down completely,” said Fuller, a psychology major. “You get this idea that they are bad kids, but a lot of them were kids who were in bad situations, and had to learn to survive.”
In addition to weekly one-hour mentoring sessions, the IU students planned a “Dress for Success” event, providing each of the mentees with appropriate work attire to model.
She’s worked with two of the young men, both of whom have been released. She stayed in touch via phone and text with the first one for about six months after his release in case he had questions.
The goal of this program is to build a relationship inside the facility and teach them the job skills that you can. It is also to be a resource for them as they reintegrate into the community,” she said. “It was amazing to see the transformation as they learned to trust you and open up to you and believe they can do better in the world.”
While she’s helped her two mentees, Fuller, from Delphi, has also gained valuable experience that has prepared her for graduate school, and her future career as a therapist.
It’s given me a great experience building a professional relationship with someone who is different from me, who has a different past and way of living,” she said. “It’s also given me a good clinical background of how to sit down with someone and set and achieve goals, and helped me learn to frame things in a way to encourage growth. It’s also given me a look into social injustice and the inequalities of the world.”
Weller is currently seeking volunteers from the campus to serve as mentors, and said it is open to students of all majors. Those serving should be younger than 25, because leaders want the mentors to be close in age to the mentees.
While helping these young people prepare for successful transition back into their communities, the students also prepare for their own professional careers,” she said.
HOPE Mentoring received grant funding from IU Kokomo’s Women of the Well House in 2017.
Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.