This graphic was created by volunteers in the JHRP class. The prompt was how to create more inclusive societies.

Giving incarcerated youth a chance

HSU collaboration with juvenile hall took a turn during the pandemic, but students continue to honor the program’s mission

The Juvenile Hall Recreation Program (JHRP) is one of the YES house’s longest running volunteer programs at HSU. Developed in 1974, the program took a short, few year hiatus, and has been running since 1980. It is one of the YES house’s many hands-on volunteer opportunities and a way for students at HSU to get practical experience in their fields.

“Volunteers of JHRP spend time with the incarcerated youth at the Humboldt County Juvenile Hall in Eureka, and provide outside community contact during regularly scheduled recreation time,” the program’s mission states. “JHRP volunteers provide support and positive guidance to the youth they serve in an effort to restore a connection to the outside community.”

It’s one of the most popular and long standing programs at YES. Typically volunteers visit during recreation time and help engage participants with art and games while providing social connection and productive distractions to youth in difficult situations. The HSU volunteers help build bonds and create prosocial connections.

COVID-19 has been a challenging obstacle for these hands-on programs, but part of the goal for YES is to sustain the programs throughout the pandemic. Due to COVID, the typical protocol has shifted from a one hundred percent hands-on community learning experience to a remote program focused on juvenile justice issues. Deeper learning for volunteers has included presentations from alumni, films, and other media-based features to build personal knowledge.

This semester, JHRP was able to collaborate with Scotia Middle School to create a pen pal program for students to engage with JHRP volunteers. This new collaborative effort is less tied to the JHRP mission, but still allows for HSU students to get hands-on learning experience.

The current co-directors for JHRP, Brenda Ramirez and Ashley Ramos, have been working with the program for three semesters. Both started as volunteers and moved into leadership positions during the pandemic. For Ramos, the leadership deepened her understanding of JHRP.

“It was a whole new perspective on the program,” Ramos said. “I felt like I valued JHRP more, being on the inside of it, seeing how much hard work goes into making sure our volunteers have a good experience.”

Ramirez’s work within the program has been a time of growth. “It was a lot of personal growth,” Ramirez said. “For an introvert, that’s kind of going out of your shell.”

Before COVID, JHRP created a support system for the youth at juvenile hall. Social collaborations were cornerstones of the program which all shifted due to the pandemic. Still wanting to sustain the program’s mission, the current directors have appreciated the hands-on experience of the pen pal program.

“JHRP wants HSU students to collaborate with the community hands on,” Ramos said. “So [the pen pal program] was the only way we could provide that.”

Current volunteer and social work major Jasmine Rafferty is eager to sustain the program and build knowledge throughout, and after, the pandemic.

“[JHRP] creates a safe and welcoming space for everyone,” Rafferty said. “I can see myself staying with them for a while. They address community needs and support community organizations which really is what social work is about.”

Rafferty is also passionate about the program’s mission and working with the incarcerated youth.

“For me, it’s a super interesting focus to be working with kids that have met adversity in their early childhood, because if we can hopefully get through while they are young, then they won’t have to go through a lot of things that unfortunately might happen,” Rafferty said.

Former program director Meg Bezak worked in leadership for three semesters and volunteered for JHRP for a year. During her time, the program worked often with the youth and did visits three times a week. The group would hold book drives, bring card games, and play board games or basketball, all centered around team building.

“It was always amazing to see them open up, because in the beginning, they didn’t want anything to do with us,” Bezak said. “But as time goes on and you get to know them a little better, they realize, and you realize, how much you can get from maintaining that relationship.”

Bezak describes the relationships she built as fleeting. “Some are there for a week, some are there for months, some come and go frequently.”

However, these relationships were inspiring for the volunteers and helpful for the incarcerated youth.

“It’s important for us to be that safe place for them and give them the hope that once they do get back out and start to live their life on the outside that they can do it,” Bezak said. “We try to provide them with the tools that can kind of help them transition back into that life again.”

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