By Mark Nicklawske

Mike (not his actual name) is a 14-year-old couch surfer with no home or real family.

He bounces around the Duluth area from month to month which leads to school attendance problems. When he does make it to class, he finds it difficult to communicate issues and sometimes finds himself in trouble. Big trouble.

Mike tangled with school officials, police and eventually the courts. He wound up on probation and was sentenced to work crew.

But if you can’t make it to school, how can you make it to work crew? How can you avoid probation violations and sinking deeper into legal quicksand?

A new Hills Youth and Family Services project, recently funded through St. Louis County and the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI), addresses the needs young people like Mike face when they find themselves tangled up in the juvenile justice system. The Hills has hired two Community Coaches to guide youth of color through probation and give them the tools to stay out of trouble.

The Community Coach positions are intentionally designed to be culturally specific, to work with African American and Native American youth, to help reduce their disproportionate representation in the juvenile justice system, said the Hills Director of Organizational Development Jessica Peterson.

Of course, helping disadvantaged youth find their way to success is a big part of the Hills long-established mission. Its Neighborhood Youth Services program and Cambia Hills counseling office are both based in the Washington Center, a renovated school building in Duluth’s Central Hillside. These programs already focus on early intervention strategies designed to keep kids in their community while receiving extra support.

“The coach positions are a natural fit,” said Peterson. “The coaches office at the Washington Center, which increases youths’ accessibility to a range of services and programs all in one place.”

With a great location and strong youth-focused programming, the Hills only needed to find the right people to take on the coaching roles. Enter Jes-wa Harris and Tammy Walker.

The Hills hired Harris and Walker to fill the new Community Coach positions in June. Both grew up in families of color, both have long youth service resumes and both have the know-how to navigate complicated bureaucracy.

Walker, a member of the Fond du Lac Band of Ojibwe, is a lifelong Duluth resident who worked for 17 years in the American Indian Education Department of the Duluth public schools. She served as an Indian student services coordinator, youth advocate interventionist and a home school liaison. She has also worked for years with the East Hillside Theatre Program and served on the Grant Community School Collaborative Board.

Harris, an African American, has been working with youth for 21 years. He worked in the Hills residential, intensive day treatment and community transition programs and coached its youth basketball team to five championships. He spent seven years as a Duluth public schools integration specialist, coached girls varsity basketball and is the current Carlton High School boys varsity coach.

“In a sense we’re both advocates for the youth,” said Walker. “A lot of these kids don’t have anyone else. They don’t have anywhere to go when they are hungry or need clothes or for smaller things, like a haircut or bus passes.”

“It helps them knowing someone is there to support them,” said Harris. “Being there to process and navigate the world. They need to have someone there guiding them and being there for support.”

Harris and Walker each work a caseload of approximately 15 young people ages 10 to 18 who have been sentenced to St. Louis County probation. They serve as positive adult role models for children who have none in their lives and much of their time is spent solving problems or giving advice.

“Seeing a person of color in that role can be impactful,” said Harris. “They’re kind of letting us in so we can be of support when they need it.”

Sometimes wayward youth just need a hot meal or a winter coat. Other times they need to know the best way to respond to a warrant: turn yourself in before you are picked up on the street.

“Sometimes, in one day, we’ll spend eight hours with one kid,” said Walker.

Peterson said while each case is unique, each case has the same goal: To move kids out of the juvenile justice system. “Or even better,” she said. “They make forward progress – re-engaging in school, finding and keeping a job, getting treatment for chemical dependency and/or mental illness or rebuilding broken relationships.”

Community coaches need to be independent; not part of the county’s social services, court or probation system, she said. “They need to be viewed and accepted as a trusting adult who is not employed by any of the ‘systems.’” This was an intentional decision that St. Louis County made when JDAI was implemented years ago. Until recently, the county worked with coaches as independent contractors;, now the Hills, with its network of professionals will provide the coaching service.  

Harris called the position a “sandwich,” piling social service knowledge and street smarts together into one potentially life changing job.

Community coaches make family counseling referrals, act as court advocates or an employment support. They also help youth engage in their community or find a good low-cost hair stylist.

“I wanted this job because it would get me back to working with the high risk kids,” he said. “We’re being that voice, that bridge, that advocate for youth.”

Walker said sometimes she gets a sense of helplessness but then realizes she found her way out of a difficult childhood and now she can share her success with others.

“We enjoy what we do,” said Walker. “If there is a way to help these kids, we’ll find it.”