Ellana Watson stood before a Philadelphia judge in January 2012, waiting to hear her fate. The 16-year-old faced detention after being expelled from school for fighting, but the judge referred her to the Philadelphia Youth Advocates Program instead.
For Watson, PYAP was a second chance. "I finally had support that I felt like I never really had," Watson said. "That just pushed me. Now, I want to do more, I want to be more."
Now 22, Watson is a full-time student at Community College of Philadelphia who has traveled to Brazil and Argentina to play soccer with youth on behalf of the national Youth Advocates Program.
This week, she was among five former PYAP youths who were awarded $1,000 college scholarships, funded by the national Youth Advocates Program's Tom Jeffers Endowment for Continuing Education. The fund is largely made up of donations from YAP employees.
YAP is a nonprofit founded in Harrisburg in 1975 that has given thousands of high-risk city youths an alternative to incarceration through community-based programs — a chance to reform their lives. It runs programs in a network of 22 states and the District of Columbia and serves more than 10,000 families in 100 counties across the nation, and more clients abroad. Philadelphia YAP opened in 1977.
"Young people who have been arrested … they're referred to YAP, and we provide several hours a week, 15, 20 hours a week, of intensive support to them and their family," said Gary Ivory, senior executive officer at YAP. The support comes through paid advocates.
"Instead of being in secure detention, they're released to [YAP], and we provide the support outside of detention, and that's important," Ivory said, because with support, high-risk youths can change, and that helps diminish recidivism.
Studies have found that community-based youth alternatives to jail time or detention are cheaper and more effective in reducing crime and recidivism.The average cost of a juvenile prison bed is $241 a day, but a slot in a community-based program costs less than $75 a day, according to the ACLU.
At YAP, 86 percent of youth stayed arrest-free while in the program, a 2014 study found. In another 2014 study, researchers found that between six and 12 months after discharge from YAP, nearly 90 percent still lived in their community, and less than 5 percent were in secure placement, or detention.
The organization recently announced a $20 million grant from the Ballmer Group and plans to expand its model to more states; pilot new programs; and address more complex, growing community needs.
YAP programs root themselves in strong advocacy and mentorship, partnering youth and their families with advocates from the same neighborhoods to guide youth through their sentences.
With each youth and family, advocates typically provide crisis intervention services, case management, skill development, educational, service and vocational work.
Advocates take youths to court appearances, on trips, and support community service projects.
Ten years ago, Diana Rivera became a Philadelphia YAP advocate because she wanted to help young people in her North Philadelphia community. "I used to see a lot of things out in the streets: kids selling drugs on the corner, kids like 11 or 12 years old. I've seen a lot of dysfunctional families," Rivera said.
Philadelphia YAP helps fill a void many of the youths have because of that dysfunction, Rivera added. "This is a chance for them because us, as advocates, we got to guide them, we got to encourage them, we got to be there for them." She knows because she's seen the transformation up close — in her own mentee, Starr Little.
Two years ago, Little was offered a deal and landed at Philadelphia YAP after being accused of vandalism at an art museum.
With the help of Rivera, Little attended group sessions, did community service, and visited libraries for six months.
The 18-year-old received one of the college scholarships this week.
She said that at YAP, there are "things you'll get from here that you won't get at home."
Watson agreed. "The kind of support you get with YAP is phenomenal," she said. "It's like, the love you never knew that you could get from a stranger, it's there."