Mentoring Awareness Month: An Evening with CASES Next STEPS
In honor of National Mentor Awareness Month in January, CASES is proud to celebrate the work our mentors do to support the growth and success of youth in their communities.
The Tompkins Community Center is a small, brick building housing CASES Next STEPS Mentoring program. The program takes place on Mondays and Wednesdays from 6:30 PM to 8:30 PM. In the evening, lit by the orange glow of streetlamps, the housing complexes tower above the Community Center. After ringing the bell, a staff member answers and directs you to the back room where Next STEPS is located.
Much like the Community Center itself, the Next STEPS room is small and unassuming. Participants talk among themselves quietly. One is sitting on the black couch in the center of the space, one at a table behind the couch, and two in chairs at opposite corners of the room. A large flatscreen television is mounted on the room’s front wall, and a life-size Connect Four stands a few feet away. The room has three windows on one wall—close to the ceiling, they peer into the night. Dwayne, a Next STEPS Mentor, also sits on the couch trying to coordinate dinner. Everyone eventually agrees on Jamaican.
CASES Next STEPS is open to youth ages 16-24 who live in or close to the Tompkins NYCHA Development. “Youth stay in the program for nine months or forever,” Program Coordinator, Ms. Moody, says. Even after participants formally complete the program, they are always welcome to come back. Many participants stay connected to the program for several years.
Although funded by the NYC Department of Probation, Next STEPS is a voluntary program, and participants do not have to have been arrested or on probation to join. Every session, participants are provided with a $15 stipend, a Metro Card, and dinner. Each session is scheduled for two hours, but they usually go over the allotted time. Even after 9 PM, participants are still engaged in conversation. Ryan, about his growing shoe collection, Nayquan about Tyler, the Creator’s music, and Safiya about her Driver’s Ed test.
The session had begun when Ms. Moody arrived. Session always starts with a check-in. For today’s check-in, Ms. Moody suggests everyone share a high of the day, a low of the day, and a high of the month. Ms. Moody guides the conversation, asking follow–up questions to everyone’s highs and lows and occasionally steering the group back on track from interruptions and tangents.
Following the check-in, Ms. Moody talks about the importance of Interactive Journaling as a component of the session. She passes out a paper booklet that includes several prompts and activities. The booklet was originally created for youth with criminal legal system (CLS) involvement, so the Next STEPS group uses it as an adaptable guide to support participants in giving structure to their thinking. Topics regularly covered are developing communication skills, positive behavioral change, and building relationships. The journaling is truly “interactive,” collaborative, and communal. Rather than working through challenges and setting goals in isolation, Interactive Journaling creates space for youth to express their thoughts and feelings alongside those going through similar life experiences.
“We help them reach their goals, not our goals,” Moody says about the role of Next STEPS in supporting young people. Next STEPS Mentoring engages young people to set concrete objectives for their futures. At the same time, young people are supported to lead the way—each participant is confident about what they are working towards and how Next STEPS is preparing them for the next stage of their life.
Safiyah, for example, says that the program has helped her further her artistic expression. Safiyah is in school for graphic design, so much of her work is digital. However, Next STEPS has given her the opportunity to put her art into the world in a more tangible way. She helped design the mural in the Tompkins Community Center and created T-shirt designs for Next STEPS. While the program encourages her artistic goals, it also gives her an opportunity to engage with her peers. Though initially reluctant to join the program, Safiyah said that it has allowed her to open up in a space where she feels welcomed and supported.
Aaliyah shares similar sentiments about the program’s capacity to engage her with other people. “I have people I can talk to here who care. People I can talk to about my day.” Aaliyah is also grateful to Ms. Moody for encouraging her career goals. Aaliyah studies criminal justice and wants to become a cadet. Knowing how passionate Aaliyah is about this goal, Ms. Moody connected her to a cadet orientation and to a community outreach event related to her studies.
Nayquan, the oldest and longest participating member of the Next STEPS, has received multiple job opportunities through the program. His favorite by far has been in childcare. “Kids are energetic and they keep me on my toes,” Nayquan says. While not currently working in childcare, he wants to return to it and feels that guidance from the program will keep him on track. “My time in the program has been interesting,” he says, noting that he didn’t expect to stay with Next STEPS for as long as he has and develop such meaningful bonds with the program mentor, Dwayne, Ms. Moody, and his peers.
“I love Ms. Moody,” Ryan, the newest participant in the program, says. “I was not trying to come to the program.” Ms. Moody adds that she had been trying to get Ryan to join session for years. Now that he’s joined, he is excited and highly involved in program activities. Even while balancing commitments to his family and friends, Ryan is consistently engaged in session.
Mentoring, Ms. Moody says, is about meeting young people where they are in their lives. Youth come to Next STEPS to improve their communication, strengthen their connections with others, and achieve goals big and small, including obtaining a driver’s permit, connecting to job opportunities and internships, getting therapy, or making it to school. Mentoring is also about building trust. For most participants, it took a few years of encouragement for them to come to their first session. Now as 9 PM nears, youth collect the trash from dinner, pester Ms. Moody for the remains of her homemade cake, continue their conversations, and make plans to return home.