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  • Steffani Fletcher

Nonprofit that helps jailed youths needs help of its own

Original source: The Florida Times Union


A nonprofit that uses poetry and art to defuse the anger and hopelessness of incarcerated adolescents may end some of its behind-the-bars therapy sessions unless funding is found to support it.


Hope at Hand, which provides therapeutic programs mainly for at-risk individuals ranging from recovering addicts to elementary school children, no longer has the money to run one of its premiere programs - an outreach to adolescent girls behind bars.


One young woman who took part in the program when she was in Jacksonville’s jail says it would be a crime to discontinue the program.


HOW PROGRAM AFFECTS A LIFE

Alyssa Beck, who grew up in this city, was jailed for three years after she was charged with six felonies. She had also been a victim of sex trafficking and later helped put seven people in jail for selling her body. Only 16 years old, Beck had lost hope by the time she was incarcerated in 2011. It wasn’t until a staff member from Hope at Hand included Beck in a poetry therapy group that she realized it might be possible for her to restart her life.


“I got hope,” she says. “I never knew hope in my life until they came in. And I found it because of the love they showed. In those sessions, I was a normal person who had made mistakes and not just a criminal.”


It worked. Now 20, Beck has restarted her life. She holds down two jobs and serves as a mentor to other sex-trafficked women and girls. But now the same program that helped Beck is in danger of being totally discontinued. Two grants that paid to send staff members to therapy sessions with adolescent incarcerated girls have run out.


The organization Hope at Hand has been caring for people like Beck since 2009. That’s when founder and now executive director Steffani Fletcher felt an urge to stretch her 23-year teaching career to focus on at-risk adolescents.


BLUE IS COMPASSION

The first year Fletcher served over 100 people as the only staff member of the newly formed Hope at Hand.


Now, the nonprofit employs seven other certified art therapists, mostly educators and counselors, who have taken their 90-minute programs to nearly 5,000 people - and staffers often wrap meditation and yoga into the curriculum.


Although the nonprofit operates on a shoestring, its annual $118,000 budget is enough to cover most of its programs. But two of the programs at the heart of the organization - one for juvenile girls incarcerated in the jail and the other for girls charged with felonies who are being held in pre-trial detention - are on the ropes.


Fletcher says the nonprofit has enough money to continue the programs only through February. After that, girls such as Beck would have few such outlets.


“We work with a lot of adolescents who’ve been damaged along the way,” Fletcher says.

“We give them the tools that will support no matter what life change they’re working on.”


YELLOW IS CALM

To watch a Hope at Hand program is to watch change take place. The charge this particular night revolved around talking about feelings, translating those emotions first into poetry and then into colors according to the whim of the young beholders.


One of the three girls seated at the long table had been placed in detention for a violation of her probation for armed robbery and burglary. Another was being held for battering her mother. The third girl, only 16, was in for using illegal drugs and was five months pregnant.

For 90 minutes, the Hope at Hand staffer held their rapt attention as they meditated, wrote and drew.


At the end, all three were smiling.

How do you feel now? the staffer asked.

Peaceful, replied one.

Calm, replied another.

Positive, the third said.


GREEN IS HOPE

And that’s exactly what Hope at Hand teaches - how to remain calm, peaceful and positive despite your position in life. It also teaches that hope is always possible. Fletcher holds onto that hope. She dreams of someone stepping forward, check in hand, to ensure the programs will continue. She estimates it would cost between $20,000 and $40,000 to continue the two programs for incarcerated girls to the end of the year. It would certainly be money well spent. Why? Because investing in hope is always - always - a sound investment to make.

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