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Intern Diaries: Mentoring Youth Who Have Been Through the Juvenile Justice System

August 7, 2014

Natalie Oppenheimer Intern Diaries: Mentoring Youth Who Have Been Through the Juvenile Justice System

Intern Natalie

By Natalie Oppenheimer

After spending all of spring break scrolling through what felt like endless links to job listings, research positions, and restaurants looking for wait staff, I was ready to throw my hands up and resign myself to Friends reruns and Ben & Jerry’s for the summer. I was trying not to be picky about finding a summer experience–the only two qualifications I really needed were a position relevant to my major in psychology and dabblings with the idea of graduate or law school, and work that let me challenge myself, not just get coffee and make copies.

Just when it seemed that I was doomed to a summer of bussing tables, a link appeared in my inbox: a listing of this year’s Tribe12 Fellows, and as soon as I read about the Pennsylvania Lawyers for Youth, I knew I’d found a project I wanted to be a part of. Founded by Tribe12 Fellow Elana Baurer with Maheen Kaleem and Lauren Ascher, Pennsylvania Lawyers for Youth, or “PALY”, is an organization that works with youth who have been through the juvenile justice system, pairing them with a mentor and educational rights advocate.

“Pennsylvania Lawyers for youth, or “PALY”, is an organization that works with youth who have been through the juvenile justice system, pairing them with a mentor and educational rights advocate.”

PALY’s mission, as stated on their website is “To effect meaningful, community-responsive changes in the Pennsylvania juvenile justice system through advocacy-driven direct service and policy initiatives.” PALY serves these youth by helping them navigate through the pitfalls of re-entry, to reacclimate to the community. By guiding these youth through complicated process of reentry, by learning the challenges every post-incarceration youth faces, PALY is able to give them a voice. Learning about the policies and practices affecting the youth through the mentoring process, PALY will be able to effect policy change where is it needed most, armed with the knowledge of what these youth face when they return to home and school.

This project impacts me personally, as PALY works locally in my native Montgomery County, focusing particularly on the disproportionately high number of minority youth involved in the juvenile justice system. In the few short weeks I’ve been with PALY, I’ve already helped outline training materials for mentors, write a grant proposal, and organize fundraising efforts. PALY may be an organization in its infancy, but it has already proven efficient, proactive, and effective.

I believe in equal opportunities. And the way the school-to-prison pipeline is working full speed ahead–even in my backyard–it seems clear to me that equal opportunity is far from our reality. By giving reentering youth a mentor, an educated advocate who will guide them through the pitfalls of re-entry and reacclimation into the community, and by using the information gleaned from that process, from the true daily experiences of youth going through re-entry to advocate and implement policy change, PALY is helping to stem the vicious cycle of juvenile incarceration.

Natalie Oppenheimer is a rising junior at Wellesley College where she is double majoring in Psychology and Spanish. She is passionate about working with and for children, particularly in underserved populations. In her spare time, she enjoys watching movies, knitting, and travel. After finishing her undergraduate degree, Natalie hopes to take time off to go hiking and backpacking before attending graduate school for psychology. Email Natalie or connect with Natalie on Linkedin.

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