Relationships with trusted adults and participation in effective programming can make an enormous difference in the life of a young person, but how can we keep them engaged?  Our January SYNC Learning Collaborative session focused on the question of youth engagement, with input from Cook County Juvenile Probation representatives, Get IN Chicago technical assistance providers, and grantee staff.

James Worthington Cook County Juvenile Probation with Get IN Chicago grantee

“I don’t want to see any more young people in jail,” said Worthington (right). “We want to try everything we possibly can to find a young person before we report them to a Judge.”   


Staff from Cook County Juvenile Probation are especially equipped to find hard-to-reach youth, and we were excited to host them for the morning and learn from their expert strategies. When faced with a young person who is difficult to track down, James Worthington, Supervisor of Community Engagement at Cook County Juvenile Probation, encourages his team to take at least four steps: calls, home visits, school visits, and social media search.

He acknowledged that it isn’t uncommon for calls to go unanswered, and individuals at listed addresses can be reluctant to give out information about youth.  Social media, in his view, often yielded the best result.  Once Probation officers made contact through that medium, most young people made plans to meet their officers. He also emphasized meeting kids where they are.  “Don’t be surprised to see us at school or McDonald’s,” he said.  “When we make contact with a kid, we don’t set up a plan to meet later – we go meet them wherever they are, right then.”

SYNC staff stand at a Get IN Chicago activity

Cheryl Howard-Neal, Director of Programs and Partnerships at MENTOR Illinois, called upon the group to share their own strategies for keeping youth engaged.  Family engagement, creating community, youth empowerment, and incentives emerged as common themes.

  • Family Engagement: “Without parent input, we can’t reach the children,” said Warsheka Griffin, Parenting Fundamentals Educator at Metropolitan Family Services.  Multiple providers echoed this sentiment, emphasizing that conversations with families and caregivers were key to staying in touch with youth.  Worthington also pointed out that what seems like resistance from parents may often be a form of protection.  “Parents want to verify who you are, why you’re there, and what you can do to help their child before they let you in,” he said.  “Approach them as a resource and with humility.”
  • Creating Community: Peer tutoring was repeatedly mentioned as a strategy for building camaraderie and leadership skills among youth in programs.  Others recommended finding creative ways to make programming an appealing group option. “Mentors and therapists are just one part of the conversation that kids hear every day,” said Darius Ballinger, Mentor at KLEO.  “We need to find ways to bring in all their peers and make what we’re doing a cool community to belong to.”  LaShawn Fonza, a Mentor at BBF Family Services, said that when she’s faced with an especially resistant young person, she focuses on mentoring some of his or her friends.  “Once kids see how hard work is paying off for one of their friends, they are much more open to giving me a chance,” she said.
  • Youth Empowerment: Giving participants ownership of decisions, both for themselves and the program, also received endorsement from the group.  “As a mentor, I try to give the young people a say in their solutions,” said Kotera Heard, Mentor at BBF Family Services.  “If they talk to me, I let them know that together, we can come up with a plan to get them where they want to be.”  James Diggs, a Mentor at UCAN shared a similar strategy.  “Starting off, I ask my mentees to list 10 goals – and then we pick two to work on first,” he said.  Additional ideas shared by the group included focus groups (Youth Advocate Programs) and using youth input to decide how to spend the incentive budget at (KLEO).
  • Incentives: The group agreed on the most pivotal incentive – food.  Rather than only chips and cookies, participants espoused hot meals and protein as especially big draws.  “Food isn’t even necessarily an incentive; it should be a given,” said Howard-Neal.  She also noted that rewarding weekly attendance does little to encourage participation:  “Consistent attendance for a full month, a full two weeks – consider incentives around benchmarks that are a little more challenging instead.”  Marshawn Feltus, a Mentor with Westside Health Authority, said incentives are built-in to a lot of his relationships with mentees.  “I’m a big laser tag player, so when they’re with me, they know that’s an option,” he said.  “And if they don’t show up – well, I just tell them, it must be because I beat them last time.  That usually fires them up.”

Bringing teams together for these collaborative sessions makes each organization and provider stronger.  More importantly, our collective efforts result in a stronger network of support for young people in our care.  “This isn’t a sprint; it’s a marathon. I think we all know that, but we do have to remind ourselves from time to time,” said Howard-Neal.  “In the coming year, let’s commit to taking it on together – talking to each other and making the most of all the wisdom in this room.”

Participants and leaders at the Get IN Chicago SYNC collaborative event

Tiffany McQueen and Cheryl Howard-Neal from MENTOR Illinois and D’elegance Lane from Westside Health Authority