AMI KIDS ORLANDO BRIDGES GAP FOR TROUBLED YOUTHS
By FRANCISCO GONZALEZ
For more than 50 years, AMIkids has been helping to bridge the gap between law enforcement, the juvenile justice system, and the rehabilitation of troubled and at-risk youth. While the organization today has over 40 programs and facilities in 10 states, it originally started in Florida, where it maintains its national headquarters. In the past half-century, AMIkids has empowered over 135,000 youth across the country to step away from a life of crime and trouble and into an avenue of success and self-empowerment.
Today, the organization has local programs, each with their own board, executive director, and staff. Some operate as residential programs, where the students live and go to sleep each night, while others are day treatment programs, almost like a long school day. AMIkids Orlando is a day treatment program, located in Apopka and led by Executive Director Wanda Walker. On-site at their facilities, she leads a staff that includes teachers, a mental health counselor, and an employment officer. The Orlando program takes on just over 30 students at a time, most of which are in the program for about six months.
These students arrive here as a “second chance.” The typical student has had run-ins with the law, often facing arrests, and are placed here after a judge assigns them the opportunity to be a part of the AMIkids program as an alternative to being placed in a juvenile detention facility. The average recidivism rate (the rate which an incarcerated person returns back to jail) for a young person in Florida’s juvenile justice system is just over 50%. However, graduates of the AMIkids program have a recidivism rate of around 10%. There are major racial, ethnic, and economic disparities in the criminal justice system, which often finds economically disadvantaged black youth as the majority of those who find their way into Florida’s juvenile justice system. AMIkids takes on students of all backgrounds. However, given the demographics in the juvenile justice system, most of the students come from black families – however, many don’t even have cohesive family units. This is one of the largest common denominators of almost every student coming into programs like AMIkids – and in most cases, fathers are completely absent. Many of these young people grow up in a situation where at least one parent has been in and out of prison.
Some live with other family members, like grandparents. Given these kinds of situations, the first authority figures many black youths come into contact with are police officers, and typically those interactions don’t go well. “I believe the most impact we [at AMIkids] make is building relationships with these kids, that have had issues with trusting authority figures in their lives,” said Wanda Walker, executive director of AMIkids Orlando. One of the great ideas Ms. Wanda and AMIkids Orlando came up with a few years ago was to have a local police officer come on-site at least once a week to have positive interaction with the students. “Because our program is not as big as traditional schools the resource officer gets a chance to interact with the kids more,” said Walker. This is a great way to restore not only the students’ own rehabilitation and discipline, but also their relationship with the great men and women serving in law enforcement. It also breeds compassion and empathy from those police officers as well, as they begin to understand the backgrounds and stories each of these troubled youth face. “The kids and the officer have a chance to understand each other,” said Walker. It shows the officer “that not all at-risk kids are bad” and shows the students that “not all police officers are bad. People make bad choices, but it is important that you learn from your mistakes.”
For crime to go down, those committing the crimes must not only be taken off the streets, but also rehabilitated. Otherwise, there will simply be an endless cycle of crimes, arrests, imprisonment, and crimes committed again upon release. AMIkids seeks to turn tax burdens – such as criminals and those dependent on government welfare – into taxpayers, those with jobs who contribute as responsible members of society. AMIkids competes for grants, often decided by the state legislature, that comes from a mix of funding sources, including Florida’s Department of Juvenile Justice and Florida’s Department of Education, as well as Orange County Schools. While the Orlando program is located in Apopka, it provides services for troubled youth from across Orange County. The resources are slim for Florida’s fifth most populous county.
The taxpayer-subsidized funding is supplemented by private funding as well. Ms. Wanda and the organization’s local board continues to try to find new sources of private funding from those in the local community. AMIkids Orlando is also always looking for volunteers, including mentors, for the students. And, their employment officer spends time connecting with local businesses to hire students. A good job has been a time-tested way to turn someone into a productive citizen. Many of these students spend all day at the program and then return back to broken homes, crime-ridden neighborhoods, and the temptation brought from other troubled peers. Each day is like starting over again for the AMIkids staff. But that’s why the program needs about six months for each student and patiently works with them, helps them open up, and take steps to further their own life. The students begin each day together with the staff, reciting the AMIkids pledge. AMIkids provides us with a great reminder that each student’s education, discipline, and well- being is unique. Each student is a unique child of God.
We have seen so much in the news lately pitting two sides: law enforcement and those interfacing with them, with a racial element often involved in the mix. If we continue to look at our justice system from that angle, no one will ever win. However, if we take the approach that organizations like AMIkids does, we can bridge the gap, provide proven rehabilitation programs, treat every person with dignity and respect no matter their background, and work with love, forgiveness, compassion, and honesty. Of course, since schools shut down in Orange County and across Florida in late March, students have not been able to come into the facility, but that hasn’t prevented Ms. Wanda and her staff from interacting with the students through technology. “This has really been trying times for the staff and the kids,” said Walker. “Although we have been making daily phone calls and doing drive-ups to see the kids from a distance, this is not the same as having a kid in the building. When the kids are in the building, we would be able to sit and talk to them about issues they were facing. To spend time with a kid that maybe is not feeling loved at home they would receive that love and belonging from the staff at the program.”
In this kind of environment, the kind AMIKids Orlando provides, we certainly can make a greater change for all. The only thing keeping programs from AMIkids from accelerating is more funding. The ability to take on about 30 kids every six months is just scratching the surface to meet the challenges our community faces. For those looking to donate to the AMIkids Orlando program, you can do so at: https://give.amikids.org/campaign/orlando/c247003. You are also encouraged to volunteer by contacting Wanda Walker at: Orlando-ED@amikids.org.
The author, Francisco Gonzalez, has served on the AMIkids Orlando board of trustees since 2016.
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