Rethink Church
Changing the World
Disrupting cycles of brokenness in the world.
Back to School Changing the World
Supporting the needs of incarcerated students

Back to school season conjures up images of backpacks, school supplies and shopping for a new school year. Some churches, you’ll find, hold back-to-school drives to ensure the students in their neighborhoods have enough supplies to start the year. But there’s one population of students that are often left out: those in juvenile detention.

Terri Stewart, a chaplain in Seattle, Washington knows this demographic well. She’s been volunteering with incarcerated adults since 2003, and with youth since 2008, and now leads the Youth Chaplaincy Coalition--a non-profit organization in Seattle that provides quality, innovative, comprehensive services for the whole person, to youth and families affected by the justice system within a quality volunteer and work environment staffed by knowledgeable, ecumenical, and caring faith-based volunteers.

One of the most transformative pieces Terri notes, is the mentoring program, created in partnership with Seattle University. Undergrads come in Friday evenings at the detention center and do one-on-one coaching with the youth. From that, grew the transition planning program, MAP (My Action Plan). The program is a transition tool where, over the course of five weeks, trained mentors work with incarcerated youth to identify gifts and talents and help them come up with an action plan for when they go home. The program has since expanded to a four-month program, which she hopes will lengthen to a year--similar to the national mentoring model. The MAP model is currently in place at King County Juvenile Detention Center and at Echo Glen Children’s Home (state level detention).

Though not everyone has time to mentor a student, there are things churches, groups and individuals can do to get involved. 

First: Call your local juvenile center.

Every center is different, Terri reminds us, but, in her state of Washington, every county has one because it’s state law. The volunteer coordinator, or the equivalent, will be able to guide you in what the center and students need. One of the things Terri does, for example, is gather prizes for the students in detention who are on honors levels. Because the schools in detentions are not typically well funded, donating rewards and prizes are a welcome addition to their classroom. 

For those who may be apprehensive about volunteering at juvenile detention centers, Terri says you can still support the people and programs that affect youth: 

  1. Give clothing to teen clothing banks, or make sure that clothing banks are supplied with appropriate teenage clothing. 
  2. Make yourself aware of places that serve homeless youth to see how you can support their work. 
  3. Some homeless shelters accept brown bag lunches. Perhaps that can be a weekend project for your youth group or family. 
  4. Support Foster Care group homes for youth who cannot find a placement.

There are a wide range of ways to support incarcerated or marginalized young people. As you think of students in your family or neighborhood going back to school, consider ways to support those who don’t have similar systems.

What are some ways you've been involved with supporting non-traditional students? How have you seen the church support learning opportunities that transform lives? Share them with us on Facebook and Twitter.

To learn more about what The United Methodist Church is doing in the area of restorative justice, read more, here >>.

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