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When the opportunity to become a mentor with the Post-Secondary Education Program came up, Melissa O’Brien knew she wanted to get involved. “I needed to do something. It’s good for your soul.” As part of her job, Melissa is already helping others. She serves as a Probation Officer for the 5th District in Des Moines, serving youth ages 16-20 who have been sentenced as adults. While helping others, she still felt that she could do more. She decided to become a mentor for PSERP participant Claudia (Read more about Claudia here).
As a mentor/mentee pair, Melissa and Claudia have been busy. Together they go on walks around Gray’s Lake, get frozen yogurt or try new places for lunch, visit the Art Center, and have even gone to the Iowa State Fair Parade together. One of their favorite activities is going to court.
While it may sound strange, visiting the court is completely normal for them, since Claudia is studying Criminal Justice at DMACC. Melissa has been able to help Claudia gain real-life experience with criminal justice. They have gone to several court cases, hearings, and testimonies; and Claudia has been able to see documents and learn court lingo. Not only has this been a learning experience for Claudia, but Melissa has learned a lot too. She gets to see the criminal justice system from a student’s perspective, which she does not get very often.
Being a mentor to Claudia and for PSERP, Melissa has realized the importance of programs like this. She says, “We need more programs like this. There are lots of at-risk youth out there. We need more community members to get involved.” And to Melissa, she says she “gets more out of this than she [Claudia] does!” Melissa fells thankful, and glad that she had this opportunity.
If you want to change the lives of our homeless and at-risk youth, contact Emma about how you can get involved too. EChristianson@yss.ames.ia.us (515) 265-1222
Education was not always a priority for 21 year-old Claudia. In her family and their Mexican culture, getting a job as soon as possible was more important than going to college – or even high school. At age 14, it was often expected of you to find a job and work. Around her, friends were getting pregnant or in trouble with the law, instead of focusing on school. Even Claudia found herself into some trouble.
Wanting to make a change in her life, Claudia decided to break “the norm” and go to college. Her school counselor referred her to the Post-Secondary Education Retention Program (PSERP) through the Iowa Homeless Youth Centers. She knew that it was her opportunity to break the “machismo” stereotype in her culture. Claudia expressed, “Having to get acceptance from males in my family annoyed me.” She said that often in Mexican culture, women don’t have a say in what they do. “If I want something, I have to work for it.”
With PSERP, Claudia works closely program coordinator, Carolyn, her mentor Melissa O’Brien, and tutors. Carolyn helps Claudia and other PSERP participants with case management to meet their unique needs, study sessions, financial planning and coaching, and much more. Claudia also meets with her mentor weekly. Since she is studying Criminal Justice, Melissa has taken Claudia to several court cases, to learn hands-on how the court system works (Read more about Melissa here).
Claudia is currently starting her fourth semester at DMACC, and truly enjoys college. Not only does she enjoy it – she excels at school too. Claudia has made the Dean’s List, and maintained a high GPA. After obtaining her Associate’s Degree, she wants to go finish her schooling at Grandview University, and find a job close to home working with youth in the court system. Claudia hopes that she can help her mom and little siblings, and find a career she loves.
Outside of school, Claudia is an active community member and a role model. This past November, she volunteered at Reggie’s Sleepout, and helped with Check-In. At home, Claudia is a trendsetter and a role model to her siblings. Being the first person in her family to go to college, she is teaching her brothers and sisters that education is a priority and valuable. Claudia doesn’t want them to go back to their hometown of Colima, Mexico; where the drug cartels and gangs are ruthless, and the government is corrupt. While Claudia wants them to do what is best for them, she wants her siblings to realize that things can go better for them than what they think.
When asked what her favorite part of PSERP is, Claudia said it’s the people. She enjoys meeting different types of people, and their open mindedness. She feels like she can truly talk openly, ask any questions, and be herself. Her advice to those who are struggling? “You don’t have to go with the crowd. They’re not always right. There is more than what you see growing up.”
This month the IHYC “Thrive” newsletter is focused on our Post-Secondary Education Retention Program (PSERP). We help youth obtain their 2 year associates degree at DMACC or 4-year college degree at Grandview or Drake. This college degree enables them to earn a livable wage. The principal theme of the work we do at Iowa Homeless Youth Centers is focused around the goal of self-sufficiency. Our PSERP Program is one way that youth can transition into becoming a successful adult. During the past semester, we worked with 14 youth in our PSERP Program. Of those 14 youth, 6 qualified for the DEAN’s List at their respective school. SIX! These are at-risk youth that society had given up on. It shows that if you believe in a youth, give them an opportunity to succeed, and advocate for their successes, they can achieve great things in life. We provide support and help reintroduce a sense of hope within our youth that had been previously missing in their lives. If you are interested in becoming a mentor for one of our youth, please contact Emma at EChristianson@yss.ames.ia.us and she will get you connected with a youth in our Post-Secondary Education Retention Program. I strongly encourage you to come meet our youth.
It costs $7,000 per youth a year to operate the PSERP program, but when you look at the community resource savings over a 40 year duration, the slight increase in upfront costs is far better than the drain on limited community resources, such as the cost of prison, emergency room visits, police or fire department expenses or state and federal assistance.
The PSERP Program is funded by United Way of Central Iowa…Thank you United Way! Our goal this year is to grow the program, secure national financial support and to increase our youth served at one time to 25. We are directly changing the life trajectory of humans, and breaking the cycle of poverty – one youth at a time. As we break the cycle of poverty, we are improving the lives of multiple generations of Central Iowans.