Thursday, Jan. 31, 2008

Mentors give at-risk teens a second chance

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Bryan Haynes⁄The Gazette
David Thorpe volunteers at Safe Passages, a youth mentoring program that tries to help teens who have committed crimes overcome their past.
A trip to the National Arboretum in Washington was an unusual outing for mentor David Thorpe and two teenage boys. For the young men, however, the visit offered a chance to get away from everyday life.

‘‘They said it was quiet and a good place to just walk around and see something different,” said Thorpe, who lives in Cheverly. As a mentor for Safe Passages, which meets in Cheverly, Thorpe takes local teens to restaurants or even go-carting so they can gain a new perspective.

Safe Passages is part of the Mount Manor treatment program, which provides residential services for youth struggling with alcohol, drug addictions or other problems. Through Safe Passages, 13 – to 17-year-olds who have been involved in the court system can stay at home and come to a central location during the week for tutoring, counseling and mentoring.

The participants in Safe Passages typically have been involved in car theft, breaking and entering or other types of minor violent offenses. During the program, which typically takes about nine months to complete, youth receive guidance in anger management, decision making and chemical dependency as well as individual or group counseling.

Thorpe supports these strategies by giving young men the direction and guidance they’re often missing at home.

‘‘These are good, normal kids but they have little support,” Thorpe said. ‘‘They get into trouble and they often pay a higher price because of their community or their background.”

Sometimes participants make choices that hurt themselves and their mentors. During one session, Thorpe worked closely with a young man who had gotten in trouble for stealing cars.

‘‘He was smart, and I tutored him,” Thorpe said. ‘‘I knew he liked cars, so I would let him drive my car around a parking lot.”

At one point, however, Thorpe learned that the youth had been detained because he and some friends had been involved in a carjacking.

‘‘It was totally devastating,” Thorpe said. ‘‘I had hoped he was going in a positive direction. I don’t know what happened to him after that. As a mentor you have to be able to maintain hope in the face of disappointment.”

Don Lowe, the volunteer coordinator for Safe Passages, seeks mentors, particularly men, who will stick around when young people take two steps forward and one step back. Some mentors have gone the extra mile by talking to teachers and guidance counselors on behalf of a young person. Others have spoken to probation officers.

Lowe became involved with Safe Passages when he was the former pastor of a church in Hyattsville. His church hosted a monthly rap session for Safe Passages participants, and each year the church would conduct a fund raiser and a program to provide exposure. Once he retired in 2000, the staff of Safe Passages invited him to serve as volunteer coordinator. The program currently meets in a church in Cheverly.

Volunteer recruitment and training are essential, says Lowe, because mentors play a critical role in interrupting the downward spiral into more serious crime. About 75 percent of the participants complete the program, and of those, about 95 percent don’t recommit crimes for at least two years.

‘‘We’ve had participants go on to enroll in community college,” Lowe said.

To reach a place of success, however, youth must overcome numerous obstacles, including peer issues, gangs, family instability and more.

During a recent daylong training session, mentors discussed ways to create a GED program for the youth and other strategies to make the program even better.

‘‘Their excitement keeps me going,” he said. ‘‘We’ve been able to attract people who bring a sense of quality and spirituality to the program.”

Safe Passages

How it makes a difference: This nine-month program provides tutoring, counseling, mentoring and more for teen males and females who have been involved with the court system. The program seeks mentors, tutors and facilitators. Contact Don Lowe at 703-623-4305 or 301-772-5174 or e-mail