Friday, February 3, 2012

Mentors they never had

Clad in a black sweatshirt and baggy khaki pants, Willie Rodriguez lounged comfortably in his swivel chair in his office at RCIL’s Main Street Program. However, as mentor of 75 at-risk 14-21 year olds, Rodriguez’s persona of laidback geniality acts as a necessity as well as a tool.

The responsibilities of the job are varied, but in short, when a kid’s life is crumbling around him—whether due to crime, family issues, abuse, or lack of stability at home- Rodriguez is the puzzle piece that holds it all together. He attends court cases, works with school administration and faculty, counsels parents and family members and of course, serves as an advisor, friend, and confidant to “his kids.”

The program was started by Rodriguez in collaboration with Director of Advocacy Services, Gene Hughes in 2006 while during previous company retreats, RCIL staff noted that a whole subset of the population –“youth in the juvenile justice system, the criminal justice system, on the streets- wasn’t being served.”

Receiving funding from the United Way, the 38-year-old father of six got the program underway, offering mentoring to teens and young adults from Utica and the surrounding communities. The Main Street program is free of charge for participants, which Rodriguez lauds as key to pushing for the best interest of the youth. He grins mischievously as he tells stories about confronting stubborn judges. “I can advocate for a kid, without jeopardizing my funding,” he noted.

Upon referral to the program, each youth is evaluated to determine the needs that should be met, and assigned to Level 1-3. Depending on the individual and his or her circumstances, he will talk with Rodriguez every day, either in person or by text message, or a few times a month. Currently, he and Kim Walsh, who joined the program last year, together work with 125 at-risk youths, with plans to serve at least 25 per year.

Both explicitly and through his body language, Rodriguez emphasized his casual approach to interacting with kids. “I probably hear more than a (hired) therapist will ever hear,” he said. “We have the time to build up that rapport. We talk about”-he shrugged- “sports, personal life, whatever.”

Perhaps most impressive are Main Street’s results; since the program started, there has been only one re-offender (1%) compared to the statewide juvenile recidivism rate of 85%. Whether using RCIL’s allocated funds to provide a youth a gym membership as a way to stay off the streets, offering housing advice to those looking to live on their own, or simply availing himself as a listening ear, Rodriguez can serve as the father figure and mentor that many of these kids have never had.

“It’s easy to tell a kid what to do, but without providing (the means), words are just words,” he explained. “You have to walk them down that road.”

- Katie J.