Youth Rescue Initiative opens satellite office in ChalmetteMar 22nd, 2010 | By Chad West | Category: Community
Young people in St. Bernard and their parents now have a new tool in the fight against drug use and crime, thanks to the recently opened Youth Rescue Initiative facility in Chalmette.
Youth Rescue Initiative, a New Orleans-based nonprofit that provides life skills training and structured opportunities for at-risk youth, dedicated its first satellite office in the metropolitan area March 15 in St. Bernard Parish.
The facility, located on Pakenham Drive at W. Judge Perez Drive, will be the center of efforts by the organization to quell a post-Katrina surge of drug use by young people in the parish.
Youth Rescue Initiative (YRI) president James Bernazzani and St. Bernard regional director Chad Clark have a valuable perspective on the need for youth development in the area. Bernazzani, former top agent for the FBI’s New Orleans Division, and Clark, a 17-year veteran with the St. Bernard Parish Sheriff’s Department, are all too familiar with the impact drugs and violent crime have on their communities.
And they’re also familiar with the limitations of law enforcement.
“The answer is not more cops and more prison space,” Bernazzani said after the ribbon cutting. “We can’t arrest ourselves out of this.”
The answer instead lies in intervention, in impacting kids before they get trapped in a culture of drug use and violence, Bernazzani and Clark said. Through educational programs, training and intervention, YRI supporters are striving to break that cycle.
“We try to build social and technical skills in the area youth,” Bernazzani said. “And we do nothing by ourselves. We partner with local universities, with area nonprofit organizations that are like minded, with law enforcement and with businesses.”
YRI has been supporting that kind of intervention work since 2008. Bernazzani retired from the FBI in May 2008. That same month, he began building support for a youth development program. YRI was launched in October 2008. Bernazzani said that in just the last 12 months, YRI has impacted close to 12,000 youth in Orleans Parish.
“We’ve been very successful,” he said.
Bernazzani said the organization teaches social skills like conflict resolution and how to make good decisions. He also said job skills training and literacy are crucial focal points for YRI.
“These kids don’t have the skills to function,” he said. “If you can’t read, you can’t get a job.”
“It’s about building structured opportunities,” added Clark.
Though often the focus of metropolitan crime news, Orleans Parish is not the only parish in the area with a drug or violence problem. Clark said that, in 2009, St. Bernard Parish had more than 1,000 drug-related arrests. Both Clark and Bernazzani said drug-related crime spread throughout the metropolitan area after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Bernazzani said that spread has led to YRI’s commitment to open a center in each of the five New Orleans area parishes.
“We couldn’t be more pleased that Youth Rescue Initiative is making a concerted effort to help St. Bernard,” Parish President Craig Taffaro said after the formal ribbon cutting March 15.
Taffaro said that all the efforts to rebuild the parish after Katrina could be put in jeopardy if the younger generations fall into drug abuse and a culture of violence.
“We’re putting things in motion, but it’s the next two generations that will really experience it,” he said.
YRI has already been at work in the parish to directly impact youth before they fall prey to drug abuse. Clark reported that, during the 2009 holiday season, YRI helped provide meals for 3,000 St. Bernard families. Charles Cassar, a teacher and coordinator of safe and drug free schools for the St. Bernard Parish school system, said YRI also sponsored a “DUI simulator” at Chalmette High School in February.
“We did four skits with high school students that set up the reality of how kids get into [drug related situations],” Cassar said. “They got to see how it all played out.”
Cassar and Clark are now working to coordinate a tour of the “Target America” exhibit at the Old U.S. Mint in New Orleans for St. Bernard students. The exhibit paints a true-to-life picture of the impacts of drug use on individuals, families and communities. Such a field trip, Cassar said, will probably happen after students take the LEAP test in mid-April.
Sandra Schott, a St. Bernard resident, was on hand for the official ribbon cutting ceremony. Schott brings a mother’s perspective to the new YRI center in St. Bernard.
“Post-Katrina it’s been tough, especially for the kids,” said Schott, who recently lost a son because of a drug overdose.
Schott’s son, Chase Julian, died of a heroine overdose in October 2009 while staying with a couple in Meraux. Schott said Julian had battled drug addiction for years. Before he fell back into drug use, Julian had been drug free for a year and a half, Schott said. Julian’s death, Schott said, challenged her to get involved with YRI’s drug prevention efforts in the area.
“Post-Katrina, the drugs are right there,” she said.
For more information on Youth Rescue Initiative or for volunteer opportunities, go online to www.youthrescueinitiative.org.