By Wil Crews
Opelika Observer

Opelika Mayor Gary Fuller created the Opelika Commission on Crime and Violence in August 2018. Last Thursday, the mayor and other distinguished community members gathered for an informational meeting about an undertaking and direct result of the commission, the Youth Incarceration Prevention Program (YIPP). The long-term goal of the YIPP initiative is to lower the one year recidivism rate among youth offender participants to 10 percent or less. The national one year recidivism rate is 47 percent.

“This program is going to make a positive impact in the lives of youth in our community,” Fuller said. “Adolescence is such a period of development between childhood and adulthood. If we can connect with troubled youth and give them other outlets and opportunities, then we may be able to help them turn their lives around for the better. We are proactively working to address concerns about how all citizens are treated in Opelika, including our young people. They are our future.”

Recently, the city received a $28,000 grant from Gov. Kay Ivey and the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA) to fund the city’s pilot program for YIPP.

“What we’re doing is we are proactively working to address concerns about how all citizens are treated in Opelika, including our youth,” Fuller said.

On average, 83 percent of youthful offenders ages 16 to 24 will return to prison. With the support of the Lee Count Youth Court, area nonprofits, colleges and churches, YIPP aims to stem the growing tide of youth, predominantly low income and minority, from either going to or returning to prison.

To do this, YIPP has created the “3-Legged Stool” pilot program to offer youth offenders help in areas such as; skills training and placing components, education and GED completion and behavioral health.

Greg Leikvold, the director of Southern Union Community College’s ASCEND program and the YIPP job skills coordinator explained how SUSCC is partnering with YIPP to provide the education and skills training and placing components.

“[The ASCEND program] is locating people who are looking for a job that do not have job skills,” Leikvold said. “Southern Union is really happy to be a part of this and we will work very hard to make sure it’s successful.”

According to Leikvold, the participants will develop skills in the following vital skill sets; teamwork, workplace behaviors, communication, basic technology (computers) and basic financial management. SUSCC will assure each youthful participant acquires the skills in an area that interest them and is given the opportunity to begin a career, earn a livable wage and realize their God-given potential.

Also, the SUSCC GED program will be offered to those youth offenders who have not earned a high school degree. The SUSCC program is flexible and offered to youth offenders at no cost.

Pastor Skipp Long, the YIPP pilot program manager said that online FOCUS classes have already begun at the Lee County Detention Center.

The “F” stands for future; the “O” stands for the opportunities, in mental and behavioral health and education and skills training that the YIPP project participants will receive; the “C” stand for their ability to connect with people and the community.

“That’s why we have invested with the churches,” Long said. “First Baptist has already opened up one of their facilities.”

 The “U” stand for Unity, in the home and community; and the “S” stand for the success that the FOCUS classes hope to help the participants realize they can achieve.

The final important aspect of the pilot program is behavioral health. Long explained the importance of incorporating the program’s training into families to create a standard of success in the community’s youth.

“It’s not only that we want the kids to be healthy, but they have to be healthy at home,” he said. “In this community, we want all our neighbors to know, you matter.”

To set the youth up for success, YIPP’s curriculum will teach Search Institute’s Developmental Assets Framework. The basis of which are the 40 assets, which support and teach strengths that the youth offender needs to succeed. Half of the assets focus on the relationship and opportunities youth offenders need in their families, schools and communities (external assets). The remaining assets focus on the social-emotional strengths, values and commitments that are nurtured within young people (internal assets).

State representative Jeremy Gray attended the meeting and voiced his support of the program.

“This is just a soundbite of the bigger picture; poverty is part of it, lack of resources is part of it, but I think that we are heading in the right direction,” he said. “We know that more than half of those that are incarcerated, whether it be youth or adult, are going to get out. We have to put things in place to make them productive citizens; I think this is the first step.”

YIPP Director Eddie Smith closed the meeting, encompassing the program with a message of hope and positivity.

“This has been a long time coming,” he said. “By working together, we can make a difference. We are not unique in being a part of it, but we can be a unique part in stopping it.”