The luckiest day of Anthony L’s life was when he was busted for shoplifting. Of course, he didn’t think so at the time. He’d stuffed a small bag of corn chips and a candy bar inside his jacket, then strolled toward the door, right into the arms of a security guard. “It’s no big deal,” he thought.
But it was. He’d been caught stealing before, so this time around the store filed charges and he ended up in court. He was 16 and facing incarceration in a New York State facility for adult offenders. Scary stuff. That’s when Anthony’s luck really kicked in because instead of sending him to jail, the judge remanded him to the Youth Shelter Program of Westchester.
Run out of a too-small facility in Mount Vernon, the shelter has changed the luck and saved the lives of hundreds of local boys in its 40-year history. It’s most recent director is Christian Philemon, a social worker with a law degree, a knack for raising money, and an uncommon commitment to helping kids who haven’t been dealt the best hand in life.
“We’ve got only 12 beds,” he says,” and there’s a waiting list of 4-6 months. We could easily fill another dozen or more beds if we only had the funding. And we’d love to have space where we can serve young women too.” One thing the shelter does have is a very impressive record of success. Its recidivism rate is just 29%. Compare that to the national average of 84% for people aged 25 and under.
Mission and History
The Youth Shelter Program opened its doors in 1977 with a mission to divert boys 16 to 21 years old from the adult criminal justice system. The shelter was founded when Elizabeth Baird Saenger, a teacher from Mamaroneck wrote an open letter to the newspapers condemning the bail practice which resulted in these youth being held in the jail system unnecessarily. At that time, New York State treated detainees as young as 16 as adult offenders. She found a sympathetic ear and ally in Judge Joseph Clifford, a sitting judge in Larchmont at the time. Together they and a group of dedicated volunteers, including Ann Speath, Anthony Cupailoa, Helen Specter and Margaret Weinstock, an educator based in Manhattan formed a board of concerned citizens whose efforts resulted in the agency that exists today, all these many years later. This determined and dedicated group sought to provide a more positive therapeutic environment for these young people as an alternative to incarceration in jails with adult criminals.
In fact, New York State changed that law only a few months ago, raising the age of criminal responsibility to 18. Starting next year, 16-year-olds will be removed from adult facilities, followed by the removal of 17-year-olds in 2019. While Philemon is pleased with that change, he points out that the number of kids who need help is unlikely to diminish. “These kids are living with a range of problems that underlie their poor choices and unlawful behaviors,” he says. “Homelessness, neglect, substance abuse, poor mental health and learning disabilities are just a few of the issues they struggle with.”
Philemon is a dreamer, but one who backs up his vision with action and results. In the eight years, he’s served as the executive director of the Youth Shelter Program, he and his board of directors have expanded the agency’s service area from primarily Mt. Vernon and its surrounding vicinities to the entire county. In addition to providing medical, socio-emotional, and psychological services to residents, the shelter offers parent support groups and discharge planning to help ease the transition from shelter to home when a young man is released.
Education and Cultural Enrichment
Education is a critical component of shelter services. The Youth Shelter is the only facility in Westchester County that is allowed to educate teen residents on site. In cooperation with local school districts, an individual education plan is developed for each boy, allowing him to continue where he left off in his regular school. Students earn credits, which are transferred back to the appropriate local school, and count toward the student’s graduation. Shelter classes are small and students get the extra attention they need to be successful academically. To say the least, shelter students respond to this approach. 99 percent of students pass their final exams, whether it’s the GED or the New York State Regents.
For many residents, living at the shelter is a time of ‘firsts’. The first time they visit a museum or sit in the stands at a baseball game. The first time they accept responsibility for a household chore—and actually follow through to complete it. The first time they come to really trust another person. To provide a rich array of “firsts,” the shelter partners with several community agencies to provide arts, cultural, and service opportunities for residents.
There is an Artist-in-Residence program operated with funding from Arts Westchester, for example. Residents have opportunities to see and appreciate the work of others and to try their own hand at self-expression through painting, music, and other art or cultural activities.
Community service is an important component of the program. For over 20 years the service program has been based at the Wartburg Adult Care Community in Mount Vernon. Five days a week one or more residents of the Youth Shelter will be volunteering on the Wartburg campus. The boys work in the kitchen, help with household tasks, and spend time with Wartburg’s elderly residents. Philemon makes a piercing observation. “Not many people in this kid’s entire life have ever been happy to see him coming. But here at Wartburg, the residents are always eager for him to visit. This kind of intergenerational experience changes lives for our kids and for these seniors.”
The next two years will be critical for the Shelter. Philemon and his supporters must convince Westchester County to replicate the program to serve more youth and young women, at the same time they must also convince the county to continue to support the 18-21-year-old youth who remain in the adult system.
In the next several months, the Youth Shelter Program of Westchester will host three major events in recognition of its 40th anniversary. On September 13, there will be a special screening of the acclaimed documentary, Thirteenth, about the constitutional amendment that ended slavery in the U.S. Interested people may register at Eventbrite. Later this year, the shelter will host an art show featuring artwork by some of its residents. Then, in Spring 2018, the celebrations will be capped off with a gala dinner and program designed to highlight the shelter’s history and thank its generous donors. For information on these anniversary events or to learn more about the Youth Shelter Program, please visit the organization’s website, and follow them on Facebook and Twitter.