Finding a New Beginning in Your Own Community - the NYC Justice Corps

 

Finding a steady job can be difficult for anyone who’s been involved with the court system, but it can be especially hard for a young offender. A jail sentence can disrupt a teen’s educational path and prevent the development of basic job skills and work experience most young adults gain in their early twenties. Without a resume, a high school diploma, or job market savvy, many young offenders are left with few options and return to the bad habits that landed them in trouble. Fortunately, there are programs like NYC Justice Corps to help these youth stay off the streets and improve their educational and employment outcomes.

The mission of NYC Justice Corps is straightforward, but the organization’s comprehensive programming touches many people in the communities the Corps serves. Participants in the Corps learn work readiness skills, gain hands-on job experience, can earn their GED or trade certification, and receive personal counseling and support. Corpsmembers acquire their hands-on experience by completing volunteer projects that benefit local churches, daycare centers, senior care facilities and other organizations in need of assistance. Essentially, Corpsmembers benefit from having a second chance to build a future, and other members of the community benefit from their service. 

To be eligible to join the Corps, participants must be between the ages of 18 and 24 and must live within one of nearly 20 zip codes in Harlem and the Bronx. They also must be on probation or parole, have been released from jail or prison within the last year, or have participated in an alternative-to-incarceration program within the past year. Though some Corpsmembers once participated in illegal activities that hurt the South Bronx, the Justice Corps offers them a chance to give back to the community and show people that they’ve changed.  

“A lot of these Corpsmembers are natural leaders, and it’s just all about how they funnel their energy. There are a lot of people out there who will follow you, so why not have them follow you to do something good?” said Juan Gonzalez, a Senior Site Supervisor at the Corps’s Fulton Avenue location in the South Bronx. “A lot of these kids could be counselors. They could be social workers. They could have active, positive lives instead of going around doing things they shouldn’t be doing. Everybody has something they shouldn’t be doing, but there’s always a point in your life when everything clicks and you realize ‘I need to stop doing this. I need to move forward.’ I’m hoping that our Corpsmembers who haven’t heard that click yet can get in tune with it. We can’t force them to change, but we can help.”

Juan is new to NYC Justice Corps, but he has worked in youth development for over 25 years. He has a great deal of experience working with homeless, runaway, and LGBT youth and has developed a passion for helping young people find their way. He likes how the model of the Justice Corps helps its young participants get on their feet through structured service projects that help the whole community. He hopes that these service projects help Corpsmembers build a connection with the neighborhood that leads them to want to stay, build a family, and continue to help local organizations grow and thrive.



 

Recently, Corpsmembers have helped manage the food pantry at a church that supplies food distribution efforts at other churches throughout the Bronx. On Mondays, Corpsmember pack over 200 grocery bags. On Tuesday mornings they help distribute the bags to people in the community. Wednesdays and Thursdays are when they unload food delivery trucks and prepare it to be picked up by representatives from some 80 other congregations. On Tuesdays, there is usually a long line, wrapped around the corner, of people in need of food assistance.

“This kind of giving involves working hand-in-hand with the community. You might even see someone who you know,” said Juan. “When our guys see that line around the corner, I hope something clicks and they think, how could you hurt a community that’s already hurting so much?”

Service projects, which might range from food distribution to mural painting and lawn maintenance, are only one aspect of the Justice Corps’ program. After Corpsmembers are recruited and enrolled, they have about one month of orientation and training. They then must complete about 10 – 14 weeks of community service projects. The final step of the six month process is a roughly two-month-long internship with an outside organization. Partway through the community service portion of the program, Corpsmembers undergo OSHA training that allows them to perform light construction work. They might help paint and plaster the exterior of a church, or put up new sheetrock walls in a daycare center.

“We just want to be visible in the community, through our work and through word of mouth from the organizations we work with. Just through word of mouth we get referred a lot and we’re pretty well known in the South Bronx,” said Andrew McKee, a former Corpsmember and current Site Supervisor who won a 2011 Corpsmember of the Year Award.

In his position as Senior Site Supervisor, one of Juan’s responsibilities is to do outreach and find more organizations in the Bronx that might benefit from the services of Corpsmembers. He knows there are plenty of churches and community centers that would love to have a few helping hands – it’s now just a matter of making sure they’re aware of the program. Juan also envisions a future in which more young people know about the Justice Corps, too. Right now, many Corpsmembers are mandated to join the program or hear about it from a counselor. Elizabeth Murrell and Phillip Crosby are two examples of Corpsmembers who came to the program on a counselor or parole officer’s recommendation.

“When I came out of jail I was looking for something to do -- something I could do with my time that would help me stay out of trouble, stay off the streets. And then I found out they were paying here. I can get my money and do something with myself, and possibly get something in the end. So it was perfect,” said Elizabeth. “I never actually had a job before, so being here and getting some experience has been really helpful. They taught me how to organize and how to dress and how to act in the business world.”



Computers in the former NYC Justice Corps alumni center. Corpsmembers can use the Computers on Fridays or during downtime. The Site Supervisors hope to install software on the computers that can help Corpsmember learn basic office skills. 

 

Elizabeth and Phillip are part of the same cohort, but they participate in slightly different programming. Elizabeth spends some of her days in the field working on service projects and some of her days in the classroom working towards her GED. Phillip, who came into the Corps with a bachelor’s degree from John Jay College of Criminal Justice, spends every day on the work site. Just as Elizabeth is studying for her GED, other Corpsmembers spend some of their days at Bronx Community College where they work to become certified plumbers or electricians. On Fridays, all Corpsmembers work with counselors to prepare their resumes and plan their next steps. Fridays are also when they participate in mock interviews, receive job training, and have a chance to meet with a psychiatrist.

At the end of the six month program, Elizabeth hopes to have her GED and be able to pursue a hands-on career in construction. Phillip hopes to pursue a trade, but he has yet to decide which specific field he wants to enter.

“Before the end of the six months even comes, we’re supposed to already have our foot in the door at an internship or a job. Basically they help us throughout the six months so that before we graduate we’re supposed to already know what we’re going to do. They help us, but it’s on us to make the initial steps,” said Phillip. “This whole program prepares you for an actual job, for the real world. What you’re doing here, you could be doing the same exact thing in a job.”

Both Elizabeth and Phillip say they’ve learned a great deal in the past couple months. Elizabeth says she’s brushed up on her math skills and has improved her communications skills. Phillip says he’s learned how to interview better and says he was surprised to learn about how organized and complex the church’s food distribution system is. Both Corpsmembers say they would recommend the program to other young people looking for a fresh start.

“It’s not a waste,” said Elizabeth. “You actually do something with your time while you’re here and you can benefit from it in the long run.”

"I went through what they went through and I became someone different" - a former Corpsmember helps young offenders get back on their feet


Where are they now? – Catching up with 2011 Corpsmember of the Year,
Andrew McKee 


Andrew and his crew of NYC Justice Corps members take a break from their work on a community center to pose for a picture

Andrew McKee, formerly a Corpsmember with Phipps CDC/NYC Justice Corps, won Corpsmember of the Year in 2011 for his commitment to service and self-improvement. Read below to find out what he's been up to since accepting his award, or find out more about Andrew and his Corps experience by reading his bio from our 2011 National Conference.

Giving back to the community is very important to Andrew McKee. He is especially dedicated to helping youth with criminal backgrounds make positive changes in their lives. Andrew has firsthand experience with just how challenging life can be for a young man with a record.

Andrew was convicted of a felony and served time at Riker’s Island; New York City’s main jail complex. When he was released from jail on probation, Andrew worried that the stigma of a conviction would keep him from finding gainful employment. He was still in his early 20s and had his whole life ahead of him, but his self-esteem was damaged by the thought that his employability might always be in question. Things turned around for Andrew when his probation officer referred him to NYC Justice Corps – a job corps that helps youth previously involved in the justice system build important life skills and gain work experience through addressing community needs.

Andrew served in the Corps for six months, from January 2010 – June 2010. Looking back on the experience he says what stands out in his memory was his participation in renovating the basement of Labor Bathgate Daycare Center in the Bronx. With decaying, water-stained walls and broken ceiling tiles, the basement was unsafe for the children. Andrew and his fellow crewmembers completed all the necessary repairs and beautified the basement with paint and child-appropriate decorations.

 “It was satisfying to just interact with my fellow cohort members and actually gain some work experience. I’d had jobs before, but nothing like that. Just the whole experience of working together with my peers and doing something positive - that stands out to me,” said Andrew. “Every chance I get or when I go past there I like to check up on the work I did. It’s been almost three years and I still take pride in it.”

While with the Corps, Andrew was placed in a prestigious internship with the New York City Department of Probation. He spent three months serving as an assistant to the Commissioner’s Office, visiting courts in all five of New York City’s boroughs to collect data from juvenile probationers. The information Andrew gathered, as well as his personal insights into the justice system, guided decisions made by Andrew’s superiors about what kinds of reforms were needed in the juvenile probation system.

After graduating from the Justice Corps, Andrew got a job handling internships and doing clerical work for New York City’s Department of Youth and Community Development. However, after two years in this position, Andrew realized that the place where he really wanted to work was the Justice Corps.

“I felt like I could use my experience there,” said Andrew. “Having been a Corpsmember and actually coming from the same place that these guys, these new Corpsmembers, are coming from…I wanted to just give my own testimony and feedback and show them that they can do something with their lives. I’ve been there and I sat in the exact same seats that they sit in. I went through what they went through and I became someone different.”

Andrew took a job with the Corps as a Site Supervisor. Every day he leads a group of about 8 to 12 youth, ages 18 – 24, in a community benefit project similar to the daycare renovation project he helped complete when he was a Corpsmember. Most of the skills Andrew teaches his crews are skills he learned with the Corps over two years ago.

“My job entails supervising our participants on a worksite. I do their time sheets [and] I teach them how to do carpentry…I’m just teaching them basic skills like how to do plastering or floor tiling - it depends on what the job is. These guys are beginners and I’m just helping them get their work experience.”

In addition to working with the Corps, Andrew is enrolled at Borough of Manhattan Community College. He says he has taken a wide array of classes with plans to receive an associate’s degree by the end of 2013. He hopes to then get his bachelor’s degree.

When he’s not at work or school, Andrew likes to indulge in his favorite hobby: photography.

“Yes. I definitely still do photography. I try to make it a part of my free time any chance I get,” said Andrew. “I take pictures of pretty much everything. Anything I see that interests me I’ll take a photo of it. I also have a strong interest in studio photography.”

Andrew hopes to soon turn his hobby into a profession. He wants to open his own photography studio and do freelance work on the side. While his money would come from putting together packages and taking pictures in his studio, Andrew would also love to send photos to publications or use his camera to document red carpet events.

Completing his degrees and starting a photography business are Andrew’s two main goals, but right now he is happy to help young offenders get back on their feet. To youth thinking about joining a Corps, particularly a civic justice corps, Andrew says:

“If you really want to change then you should take the program seriously. There’s not a lot of opportunities out there that provide these resources and services. A program like this that offers work experience and internships - there are just a whole lot of doors that can be opened for you, especially when you’re young and you’re in this population, 18 – 24-year-olds. You have to take advantage of this opportunity and take it seriously.”

 

2011 Corpsmember of the Year: Andrew McKee


***Update! Click here to find out what Andrew has been up to since he won his award.***

When Andrew McKee left jail on probation, he feared what life would be like: how would he get past the stigma of the conviction? Would he able to turn his life around? Happily, Andrew discovered that he could succeed after he joined the Phipps CDC, NYC Justice Corps.

It was an experience that not only boosted his confidence, but also his employability and his desire to give back to communities. Andrew and his crewmates completed major renovations to a local day care center, a project that Andrew says filled him with a deep sense of pride.

Andrew also became a reliable leader who showed a talent for documenting his team’s success through photography. This hard work and professionalism paid off when he obtained a high profile internship with the NYC Department of Probation, where he served as a special assistant to the Commisioner’s Office.

Once again, because of Andrew’s work ethic and achievements during his internship, he had even more success, securing a job as a full-time Field Supervisor with the NYC Department of Youth and Community Development.

In addition to working, during the night Andrew is also pursuing a liberal arts degree at Borough of Manhattan Community College. In his free time, he’s also making good use of photography hobby as a means to show other young people how they can have a positive impact on their communities. For instance, he has volunteered his time taking photographs for a non-profit organization that helps youth channel positive energy into dance rather than into negative activities. He also photographs young poets and musicians, and was even praised by Carvens Lissaint, an award winning Haitian-American performing artist whom Andrew has met and photographed.

Andrew is now a role model for others and proves that despite one’s past, there is always the potential to change and help make the world a better place.