Make That Connection: How direct service keeps me going

Over this past year I have been doing a lot of indirect service- developing training curricula, filming and editing, supporting my co-workers with their various projects, and making sure our office copier gets all the love it needs (it seems to require attention at least once a week to keep running smoothly :P)  I love it, but one of the things I have had to really work on this year is how to stave off a feeling of disconnection- sometimes when you are buried in the paperwork it is hard to see how your efforts are directly making a difference.

To help assuage this feeling, I have been able to continue volunteering with the nonprofit that I worked with during my Volunteer Maryland Coordinator year- Citizenship Law-Related Education Program (CLREP).  While I was there I managed the volunteer program for Baltimore City Teen Court (BCTC), an alternative to the juvenile justice system for teenagers in Baltimore City who have been arrested for misdemeanor offenses.  In order to come to BCTC, the youth has to have actually committed, and accept responsibility for the offense.  We then conduct dispositional hearings, which decide the amount of consequences the youth will receive, rather than determine their guilt or innocence.

The thing that really makes BCTC work is that other teenagers are actually the ones to make this decision.  Teenagers serve on the Teen Court jury, and act as court bailiff, clerk and jury foreperson.  The jury is modeled after a Grand Jury model, where the jury members ask the youth respondent questions, and then decide, based on the responses to those questions and the case statement, what sanctions the youth should receive.  When the youth respondents hear other teenagers telling them that what they did wasn’t cool, it carries much more weight than when an adult says it to them.

The consequences, or sanctions, that the respondents receive include community service and jury duties- they are required to come back to BCTC and serve as a jury member for other teens’ cases.  This gives them an opportunity to see both sides of the legal process, as well as turn their experience into more of a positive one.

One of the most telling things about the success of BCTC is the fact that many teens who come as respondents end up staying on as volunteers after their sanctions are complete.  I’ve learned a lot from these young people, and every time I go I am so glad I did.

As a side note- CLREP is looking for a VISTA member for next year, to help work on their Marketing and Technology strategy and capacity.  If you have tech skills, or you have been learning them and want a chance to use your skills to help make a difference, think about applying!

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