CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- For many juvenile offenders, any criminal sentence can feel like a life sentence -- the start of a cycle of mistrust and lost opportunities that will follow them into adulthood.
For Jabbar Thomas, a service placement specialist at the Human Resource Development Foundation Inc., and his coworkers, teaching the young adults they work with fundamentals like trust, cooperation and respect is one of the basic aspects of HRDF's EPIC program -- and one of its most important.
"You've got to break down barriers; that's the biggest thing," Thomas said. "Everybody is an adult, everybody is after them, everybody is a snitch, and everybody is trying to get them. I think that the first thing we have to do, is break down those barriers. I think that's our biggest barrier -- their barriers."
EPIC -- Empowering Positive Integration in Communities -- aims to give young offenders skills that will help them get a job, and make them less likely to get in trouble again, said Stephanie Ahart, HRDF's regional program manager.
"This program is really special, and it's a hard group, because of their age and the lack of work experience," said Loyd Casto, a service placement specialist at HRDF. "There are so many activities we can throw their way; there are so many advantages to the program, and that's what we want them to see: 'Stay with us, don't drop out. Stay in the program, and you'll benefit in the long run.'"
HRDF was established in 1967 as an offspring organization of the AFL-CIO, and its relationship with unions means it can offer job and technical training in a number of fields, Ahart said. She said 38 students have enrolled in EPIC, which was established in December through a $1.2 million U.S. Department of Labor grant, and she hopes to help at least 100 by December 2014, when the grant ends.
EPIC does two main things: Its general adult education programs provide life skills for people between 18 and 21 years old who have been through the juvenile justice system, and its specialized skills training offers them a chance to be certified in a number of technical fields.
"Students come in and they will be assessed through a software program," Ahart said. "Some kids may start out and they may need help with hygiene; others may need help learning how to complete a résumé or apply for a job. The spectrum of where the kids are is very large, so it's a lot of one-on-one with the kids."