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Florida county mentoring program pairs at-risk youth with role models

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Meredith Moran

County News Junior Staff Writer

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A Palm Beach County, Fla. mentoring program is reducing recidivism and providing stability to at-risk youth by pairing them with positive role models. 

Palm Beach County’s Youth Services Department created the Enhanced Mentoring Engagement program — known as “Level Up” — with United Way of Palm Beach County’s Mentor Center and the county’s Children’s Services Council after the county recognized there was a gap in mentoring programs for the youth they felt could benefit from them the most, said Tammy Fields, Youth Services director.

“There were a lot of mentoring programs within the county, and many of them had a requirement of a certain grade point average or that the kids hadn’t been in any trouble in order to be able to participate,” Fields said. “But we saw that the kids that may need mentoring the most were the ones who didn’t have the grade point average and had had behavioral issues, so the intent was to create a program where the mentors would also get trained on what the juvenile justice system or the foster care system was like and on trauma-informed care … so that they would really be able to deal with the unique needs of these kids.”

United Way conducts the training and conducts background screenings on all participating mentors, according to Fields. Mentors are required to meet with participants at minimum monthly and for at least six months; however, many pairings meet more often, sometimes multiple times a week, and their relationships often extend beyond the six-month mark, Fields said.

“In many cases the [mentorship] continues for years, which is wonderful,” she noted. “All of the research shows that if there is a consistent caring adult in a child’s life, even if they’ve had a lot of trauma, that will help build resilience.”

Nearly 300 students, ages 11-to 19, have participated in “Level Up” since it launched in 2021. The majority involved in the program are referred from the juvenile justice system, while others are connected through the foster care system or Palm Beach County schools, according to Fields.

The county sprawls over nearly 2,5000 square miles, so the program has three “hub” locations to ensure that more youth can participate without having to worry about transportation.

“Some of the agencies that are acting as the hubs are also able to provide further career opportunities,” Fields said. “The Boys and Girls Club will do college tours periodically and we also have a relationship with our CareerSource in Palm Beach County to help get the kids back on track so that they’ll make sure that they’’e following up on their career aspirations.”

The program pairs mentors and mentees based on common interests when possible and encourages discussion around the mentee’s future career path, according to Fields. 

“They have trainings available for unique skills — auto mechanics, computer skills, construction,” Fields said. “If a mentor is in a particular career or area that we see the mentee has a passion for, we try to make that match.”

Eric Van Cleve, a mentor in the program, is an electrician and conducts basic electrical trainings, including wiring and checking power and voltage, for youth interested in pursuing a career in the trade.

“One of my favorite things is just being able to teach the kids about electrical,” Van Cleve said. “I wouldn’t have expected that teenagers — middle school and high school kids — would take such an interest in the trades, considering just how fast-paced our world is these days. I mean it seems a lot of kids want to be YouTubers or an athlete or something along those lines, but it’s been really fun to just show them what I do for a living, the upsides of it and giving them a realistic approach to life and having a career one day.

“Obviously, not everybody goes to college, not everybody goes to play in the NFL, so we hope through this program to plant seeds in these kids and let them know that you can still have a good life and provide for yourself and your family with learning something like a trade and being good at it.”

Van Cleve said being involved in Level Up made him realize how much he wished he had access to a similar program when he was growing up.

“I had a rough time growing up — I got into a lot of trouble,” Van Cleve said. “And I had different men kind of intermittently pore into me at times, but nobody that was really consistent per se … so hearing about this program and what they do just piqued my interest in wanting to be a part of something that I didn’t have, and a lot of my buddies didn’t have growing up. I think the most rewarding thing is just being able to sit down with these kids.

“I went out yesterday to a group home and saw one of my mentees and the first couple of times meeting with them is always awkward and it’s hard to keep their attention, but after a while of just being consistent and showing up and being vulnerable, showing them that you care and want to help them and them ending up being receptive to that and opening up at some point — it’s a great thing to establish with these kids.”

Problem: The county discovered a gap in mentoring programs for at-risk youth.
Solution: The county partnered with United Way to create the “Level Up” program, partnering youth with positive role models.
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