Life coaches mentor Maryland teens most at risk of gun violence with the message: ‘You’re bigger than that’

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Clarence Young Jr. and a teenager he’s mentoring recently watched a music video together by Zoom. It featured 20 or 25 people, many with firearms, Young recalled.

As he watched, Young’s mentee — himself incarcerated in a Maryland Department of Juvenile Services facility — remarked that only one or two of the people in the video weren’t “dead or in jail.”

“That was kind of a wake-up for him,” Young said. “Do you want to be like that — or you want to turn your life around?”

Young is one of a dozen-plus life coaches mentoring and guiding young Marylanders through a juvenile services program targeting children and teens most at risk of falling victim to or perpetrating gun violence. Each member of Thrive Academy, which is serving nearly 60 people, is paired with a life coach, asked to identify goals, and provided resources and “intensive” mentorship.

Many are working to graduate from high school and get a job. Some want a driver’s license or learner’s permit. Others want someone to play basketball with them or hang out while they work on a bike. Young and his mentee sometimes break the ice on their Zoom calls by watching NFL highlights.

Throughout their multiple interactions with each client per week, the life coaches try to help the teens to think differently, make better decisions, take advantage of new opportunities and, ultimately, change the trajectory of their lives.

“All we can do is drop seeds,” said Brandon Wilson, another life coach. “We don’t know when a seed might take root. We just nurture it. We water it. We give it sunlight. That’s just what we try to do, to have them prepared.”

Thrive Academy started in September in Baltimore City and Baltimore County. It has expanded to include Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties, and has the capacity to serve up to 200 young people connected to the juvenile services agency and their families. That’s roughly 10% of the agency’s community caseload. The four jurisdictions together account for 85% of the young people shot in Maryland, according to Juvenile Services Secretary Vincent Schiraldi.

As of early February, three young people served by Thrive Academy have been rearrested on a gun charge, according to Juvenile Services spokesman Eric Solomon.

Schiraldi told The Baltimore Sun in an interview that Thrive Academy is having positive results. Two of the people who saw their best friends killed called their life coaches and didn’t retaliate, he said. In another instance, a young person enrolled in Thrive ran away from home, but still called his life coach “every single day.” After a few days, the life coach talked him into going home.

The life coaches attempt to infuse mentorship into the clients’ lives, Schiraldi said — “the way you’d want your own kids to hook up with a mentor, or a coach, or a minister, to be on the right track.”

“If the kids don’t have a lifeline, they’ll do the stupid thing,” Schiraldi said.

The initiative marks the agency’s first specialized programming for young people involved in gun violence, according to Democratic Gov. Wes Moore’s administration. His budget proposal for the fiscal year that starts July 1 would spend an additional $4.4 million so the program would cover the 300 youth most at risk of gun violence.

Each jurisdiction has life coaches through a local organization. The idea is to find “credible messengers,” adults with experiences similar to the people they are trying to reach. They may have been involved in the past themselves with the juvenile or criminal justice systems. In Baltimore, coaches are part of the community group We Our Us, which also has a “Stop the Beef” hotline.

In a January interview, five of We Our Us’ roughly one dozen life coaches described apprehension among Thrive’s clients, at first. Their hoods were up and their faces covered as they slouched in the seats. Trust was built over time, by showing up over and over again, said the life coaches, who range in age from their 30s to 60s.

“It’s not about what you know, it’s about how much you care,” Wilson said. “That’s the most important thing: Just showing that you care, and your consistency. That’s it. … If you see a man showing up every week, you start to say, ‘Hold up, he might be onto something.'”

Now, young people begin weekly meetings by chatting with each other. Their friends may see life coaches picking up clients for a meeting and want to tag along. Calls are more frequent — and a client will often reach out before taking action.

“We know when you call us, you’re asking for advice,” Gregory Gee said. “If you knew already what you was going to do, then you would’ve did it. So you’re asking for our permission. You want us to say, ‘Hey, you’re bigger than that. Don’t do that.'”

Asked about the idea behind the program, Schiraldi said a young person connected to the agency was killed on Schiraldi’s second day on the job. Even with youth representing a small fraction of Maryland’s overall gun violence, he knew he wanted to act.

“Maybe for a bunch of [juvenile] systems, it’s not that prominent,” he said of youth violence. “But damn, it was prominent in Baltimore when I got here, and we’ve got to do something different.”

Baltimore, which stayed below 300 killings in 2023 for the first time since 2014, has seen an uptick in young people shot or killed in recent years. Last year, 44 people 19 and younger were killed, the most in at least a decade.

To identify the young people most at risk of gun violence, the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform and the Annie E. Casey Foundation analyzed thousands of DJS case files. To qualify for Thrive Academy, it’s likely a young Marylander was a victim or target of gun violence and has previously been referred to the agency. He or she might be out of school or missing out on job training, have witnessed a shooting or lost a loved one to gun violence, and have a behavioral health diagnosis, according to DJS.

The agency declined to make Thrive clients available for interviews, citing privacy concerns.

In addition to life coaches, Thrive clients can receive relocation assistance, trauma-informed therapy, family support, and tuition aid for college or vocational training. The program includes a weekly stipend between $50 to $100 for clients who stay on track with expectations.

Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott of Baltimore said in a statement to The Sun that the focused deterrence model that Thrive Academy and a similar city approach called group violence reduction strategy are based on “proven” results in Baltimore and around the country.

While there has been no “overlap” between GVRS participants and Thrive Academy clients, Scott said his team has been discussing coordination with the state around “our shared youth justice efforts.”

“We are grateful to see our partners at the state join the city to expand focused deterrence models, and embrace this evidence-based approach to address youth violence head on and collectively wrap our arms around Baltimore’s young people, while also holding them accountable where necessary,” Scott said.

State Republicans are cautiously optimistic, with GOP leaders in the General Assembly saying they see promise in trying to reach the young people most at risk, even if the program isn’t a “silver bullet” for youth violence or accountability concerns at the juvenile services agency.

“It is a creative, interesting idea, giving young people an overall support system to pull them from a negative direction to a positive one,” said House Minority Leader Jason Buckel. “My only hesitation, it’s not a silver bullet in and of itself. It’s a good idea, and part of a panoply of solutions we can have to the problem. We can’t lose sight of broad-based accountability solutions.”

Targeting support services and intervention for the most at-risk young people has promise, agreed David Muhammad, the executive director of the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform. Even if young people constitute a small percentage of Maryland’s overall gun violence, that percentage is not zero.

“To prevent a young person from being a victim or a suspect, that’s some of the most important and rewarding work there is,” he said.