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JR: Advocate for Youth Violence Prevention

“The key is to be positive and do positive things ... It’s hard at the beginning, but if you have people trying to help you and show you tools … then it’s worth a try and you won’t regret it.”

We spoke with JR via phone and email in March and April 2015.

JR, 23, is a member of and mentor with the Safe and Successful Youth Initiative (SSYI) in Holyoke, MA, which provides services to reduce youth violence. We spoke with JR about his efforts to create positive change in his own life and prevent youth violence. JR is also currently working towards his High School Equivalency Diploma.

My name is JR and I’m involved in the Safe and Successful Youth Initiative (SSYI) program in Holyoke, MA. I’ve been a member of the program for two years and now also mentor other youth in the program. The program helps prevent youth violence by reaching out to youth who are gang members and on the streets, and providing them with counseling and connections to services like education and job training.

I was raised without a childhood. I grew up with my mom and sisters and was forced to become a man at a boy’s age. My parents and relatives were drug dealers and I was exposed to drugs and all that comes with that life at an early age. It was all I knew. It was how I thought I could get out of my neighborhood, which was bad. I was surrounded by violence and didn’t know what positive was. No one encouraged me to go to school or do positive things with my life. As I got older, I started selling drugs, hanging out on the streets, and getting into trouble. Because of this, I ended up with no place to go; my relatives wouldn’t let me stay with them.

I was staying on the street with no where to go and no money. I knew I needed a job. One day, an outreach worker from SSYI knocked on my mom’s door and said they help youth to better their lives. He talked about education and vocational school and I thought, wow, this sounds cool, to be able to do something with your life. Then, I had a friend who was in the program and asked me to come with him, so I gave it a shot.

Once I was in the program, it was like a big family. An outreach worker at SSYI became a father figure to me and encouraged me to do positive [things]. It hit me that there had to be a better life and that I should embrace the help they’re giving me. The program has on site counselors and group meetings where we talk about our experiences. Everyone is outgoing and embraces me like family, there’s a lot of love. They keep telling me education is the key and it will open a lot of doors. Everyone in the program has a past like mine- just as violent. It encourages me to see others moving on and trying to prosper and succeed.

Now, I’ve almost completed my High School Equivalency. I’ve been connected to jobs and am in the process of getting housing. I got instruction on how to look for jobs and speak professionally. I’m also a mentor for the new youth coming into the program. I’m positive and I encourage them to embrace the help that’s given to them.

My personal goal is to finish my High School Equivalency class and go to barber school and eventually open up a barber shop. I want to continue to volunteer and help youth turn their backs to violence. I want them to know they don’t have to risk their freedom to have money and be successful. I also want to go to college and study engineering.

My advice would be if you’re involved in street violence, it will eventually lead to self destruction. You can’t prosper from it. The key is to be positive and do positive things. This will open doors to other opportunities. It’s hard at the beginning, but if you have people trying to help you and show you tools to help you, then it’s worth a try and you won’t regret it.