An Ounce of Prevention
By Yvette Moore
Providing services that restore lives and communities is what United Methodist mission institutions do. Some offer programs that are alternatives to incarceration. Others offer support for those affected by crime. All specialize in the "ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" remedy for the ills of crime.
Los Duros, The Tough Ones, is the name of a Houchen Community Center program teaching 10- to 18-year-old boys in El Paso, Texas, that they can be tough without drugs and violence.
"Our center is in the barrio," said Elsie Conner, past interim director of the center. "These boys had to fight to survive. Some have been in jail for drugs or other offenses. We started this program to get young boys off the street, to help them form values and goals for the future."
Los Duros use an holistic approach to lead the youth in a better direction. The program’s body conditioning aspect attracts the boys. Saturday mornings are filled with cross-country runs along highways, river banks or in parks, while two nights a week are devoted to intense workouts and body boxing.
While physical training may attract the boys, they soon find lessons of health, respect, courage and, yes, love, come with the package.
"At this age, boys are conscious of changes and maturing in their bodies," explained the Rev. Richard Campbell, the retired United Methodist minister and Houchen Community Center volunteer who initiated Los Duros. "Physical development raises their self-esteem, builds confidence and channels emotions and energy. Meanwhile, the young men build relationships with adult program leaders and see them show understanding, patience, caring, fairness and integrity in simple things like apologizing when wrong."
The weeknight workout sessions conclude with a brief prayer. Each spring, Los Duros boys go away for a weekend spiritual retreat filled with fun, food and faith-building experiences.
Los Duros also addresses the adolescent need to belong, Mr. Campbell said. Membership in the program requires a significant amount of time, so participation becomes either an alternative to being in a gang or a tempering and competing interest for a boy who chooses both, he said. Los Duros members must sign a contract agreeing to be disciplined, and to attend regularly and on time. In the group process, participants learn leadership skills, mutual support, and nonviolent conflict resolution.
In May, Los Duros hosts a day of physical endurance that includes a 25-mile run called the Super Dooper Killer Diller. Soon after, they celebrate with an end-of-season awards banquet at an upscale local restaurant. The program also has a scholarship fund to assist participants with post high-school education.
Recently, Houchen Community Center kicked off a similar program for girls called Mujeres, which means women. Mujeres is a program for teen girls who have just had babies and need help in getting back to school and/or into the workforce.
Utica Neighborhood Center
There’s a state-sponsored alternative to an incarceration program for mentally ill adults in Oneida County, New York, because of the Neighborhood Center in Utica, NY. The center’s Behavior Health Care Division started the program, but the state has since picked it up.
"Our alternative to incarceration program worked with adult mentally ill persons to determine whether they were in the criminal justice system because they had committed a crime or because of their treatment needs and their inability to advocate for themselves," said Virginia Barney, director of the center’s Ral Center for Behavior Health Care.
Ms. Barney said the program helped guard against "cost-shifting" that can land a mentally ill person who needed treatment in a funded jail rather than an underfunded mental health facility or program. When needed treatment is not obtained, mentally ill individuals can end up in jail for relatively minor offenses, she said.
Rather than going to jail, the Neighborhood Center’s mental health care division enabled the clients to go home and use outpatient resources for their needs. The center used electronic monitoring device bracelets to keep track of clients in the program and made sure they received needed treatments. The success of this program resulted in the county adopting a similar prison diversion program that, in conjunction with the county mental health department, assesses the needs of those arrested. The county alternative to incarceration program for mentally ill also uses electronic monitoring devices to track clients and make sure that they are receiving needed treatments.
"Mentally ill people are not more likely to commit crimes than the general population," Ms. Barney said. "We believe there should be a consequence for action. But mental health needs are real. When you’re bleeding, you can see it. When it’s something intangible like mental illness, you can’t see it, but it still has real effects."
The Neighborhood Center no longer operates the alternative to incarceration program for mentally ill adults, but it is still helping adults and youth gain skills that can help many avoid the many roads that can lead to jail.
The center’s mental health care division helps clients address issues of substance abuse that can lead to violent acts to support habits or that can undermine a family’s stability by draining limited financial resources. It works with parents and children to break cycles of domestic violence that can easily spill over into schools and communities. It teaches youth in area schools and churches the skills for mediation and nonviolent conflict resolution.
Ms. Barney believes prevention is as important as providing assistance after problems have developed.
"If we have a 13-year-old who has committed a crime, we ask what can we do to get him or her off of the road to destruction. However, we should also ask how do we help a 4- or 6-year-old avoid the road to destruction in the first place," she said. But prevention is so difficult to measure.
Without quantifiable "proof" that prevention programs work, critics often cast off funding for such efforts as "pork" or "soft of crime." But the experts staffing United Methodist mission institutions know from experience that an ounce of prevention has been worth a pound of cure for years.
Yvette Moore is managing editor of Response.
Reprinted with permission of Response magazine ©2003.