D-M Airmen advocate for youth detenion facilitiy mentoring

Tucson, Ariz. -- Several Airmen at Davis-Monthan have found a way to make a difference outside the gate - by going inside the Pima County Juvenile Detention Facility. The Airmen have been taking part in the facility's Community Mentoring Program.

The program is making a difference for the kids and mentors alike, according to participants, and drawing state-wide attention.

The state-wide Community Advisory Board met in Tucson Sept. 25 to discuss the program, and heard from several Airmen, who testified to the merits of mentoring kids at the facility, according to facility Detention Program Director Jennifer Torchia.

"The board coordinates volunteers and funding for programs, and they wanted to learn more about the program. Other counties are interested as well," she said.

Since its inception in September 2005, the program has put D-M Airmen together with more than 80 residents at the facility, which houses children ages 8-18.

The Airmen involved believe in the program and want to see it grow.

"I wanted to get the news out about the mentoring program. I hoped that the members in the audience may be able to start similar programs at other Juvenile Detention Facilities around the state," said mentor 1st Lt. Amy Wheaton, a member of the 355th Aerospace Medicine Squadron. "It's a great program that allows the D-M community to work hand-in-hand with the downtown community in hopes of a brighter future for the youth."

Senior Master Sgt. Jorge Benavides told the board he found mentoring a great way to make a difference.

"The Detention Facility Mentoring Program is an outstanding way to get involved in the community. You volunteer an hour per week to change a human life. These young folks in the detention facility have no mentoring and zero guidance in how to pursue a productive life," said Benavides, the superintendent of the 355th Operations Support Squadron.

Volunteers are given this opportunity to make a difference as they take an active role in the young person's life, Sergeant Benavides explained. People connected to the program use the term youth to describe their mentees, who don't like to be referred to as "kids."

"Mentors and reading coaches meet with a youth, attend the youth's court hearing and continue to meet with the youth once the youth is release. By setting goals and boundaries, mentors and reading coaches teach these youths how to execute a goal."

Volunteers have the power to change these young peoples' attitude and outlook on life, thus empowering them to lead productive lives, according to the volunteers. And as Sergeant Benavides explained, mentoring goes well beyond detention.

Staff Sergeant TaQueela Berry has stayed connected with her mentee long after her release from the facility, though it's been difficult at times. Sergeant Berry, a member of the 355th Wing Command Post, has been involved from the very beginning. She told the board about challenges after detention.

"My biggest challenge came after my youth was released from detention in October of 2005," Sergeant Berry said. "She was placed in two different rehab centers in a two-month time frame."

Neither facility recognized Sergeant Berry as being on the authorized contact list, and she wasn't a family member, so she had to work through a probation officer to establish contact. Then her youth was assigned a string of different parole officers and finally sent to a group home in Phoenix. But Sergeant Berry persisted in maintaining the relationship, displaying one of the essential qualities required of a mentor - "patience and understanding."

All three mentors recommended getting involved to fellow Airmen.

"Yes! I have recommended it before, and those individuals have had great success with their youth," Lieutenant Weaton said.

Getting involved is easy, according to Sergeant Benavides, for those who possess the willingness to "break out of your comfort zone and meet with a youth once per week at the detention facility," he said. "About a 10-minute drive from D-M. Fill out the background paper, attend Alpha, Bravo and Reading Seed Training offered several times per month on base."

After taking these steps, people are ready to make an impact, the mentors explained, adding that an impact is made on the volunteers as well, giving them rare insight.

"You realize your life wasn't that bad," Sergeant Berry said. "I listen to all that my youth has endured at such an early age and I can't fathom it. It's been humbling."

And according to Ms. Torchia, the mentors give the youth at the center something they can't get anywhere else.

"To spend some time truly makes an impact. For them to have a positive person in their life who is not being paid to be there, it really makes a difference," Ms. Torchia said.

Members of the program hope a similar impact may soon be felt in youth detention facilities across Arizona.

To get involved, visit the Detention Facility Mentor Program Site on the D-M Intranet or call Sergeant Benavides at 228-3882, or Staff Sgt. Jessica Schmidt at 228-5554.