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Vision quest

Special Issue | Program seeks to help youths through

Issue: "Effective Compassion," Sept. 1, 2007

VISION YOUTHZ

In 2005, the Journal of Correctional Education reported that "the punishment approach has failed to be successful . . . acts of criminality will also continue upon release until something alters the existing patterns." Vision Youthz in San Francisco attempts to alter the existing pattern surrounding lives of at-risk youths.

Vision Youthz seeks to bring a change in the lives of previously jailed men and women ranging from 17 to 24 years of age. The goal is to help them learn to make wise decisions through "inner awareness" growing out of outdoor activities, silent time, and yoga.

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Young adults leaving prison have the option to join the program, which can become part of an individual's probation requirements. The program lasts four months; afterwards, Vision Youthz refers participants to vocational schools or encourages them to enroll in City College in San Francisco.

The Mission District warehouse that is the program's home has a welcoming and encouraging atmosphere. Flat pillows on the couch are evidence of a high level of traffic. Computers that provide access to the internet for job-hunting sit next to an open kitchen with a variety of groceries; the youths, referred to as interns, can take food home to their families.

The program employs an individually focused curriculum. Interns arriving at the program receive a questionnaire asking how they view their futures. They then have many activities outside of the center such as night hikes, silent hikes, and barefoot hikes in the California mountains. One exercise lines up interns single-file, blindfolded, with only the leader allowed to see. Each intern places a hand on the shoulder of the preceding intern, with the goal being a fostering of trust.

Gaylon Logan Jr., executive director of Vision Youthz, spent most of his teen years in the juvenile system: "I didn't make it to prison but I was awfully close." He says the birth of his son when he was 22 pushed him to grow up. Impressed by structured meditation and yoga, he brought an "inner awareness" curriculum to Vision Youthz. He acknowledged that interns initially resist meditation but says they eventually participate in identifying areas of weakness and setting personal goals, both current and up to 20 years down the road.

Interns report to an advisory board that consists of directors, peers, and family members: The board tries to hold interns accountable to the goals they set. In place of rules and regulations the board questions whether behavior is allowing an individual to accomplish previously set goals. A typical question: "Does drinking all day allow you to accomplish the goals you have set?" Since participants have often gotten into trouble through their craving for constant stimulation and excitement, it was a meaningful moment when one intern came to realize, "I'd rather stay home with my family than go out."

Participants with serious offenses learn of the program through word-of-mouth or by referrals from courts, attorneys, public defenders, probation officers, or local schools. Two years ago the male-only program opened to women, who brought what case manager Roberto Aparicio calls a "positive dynamic." He says girls create "instant maturity," as male interns begin censoring their language or apologizing when profanity slips out.

When a school counselor recommended Vision Youthz to her, Patricia Rodriguez, 20, found it a place where "we all just connect, the people, the personalities." She sat on a couch, patiently waiting for the yoga teacher to arrive, and said, "When I'm in a situation where I'm angry, I just do meditation or the breathing exercises. It's really helped me out." She is now beginning her second semester at City College in San Francisco and wants to become a case manager.

Vision Youthz's promotion of "inner awareness" doesn't include an awareness of sin or the need for repentance in Christ, so any change it promotes is merely cosmetic. Still, Logan hopes to modify the curriculum to produce stronger inner-awareness exercises and to develop incentives for families and friends of interns to become more involved.

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