The YMCA of Metro Chicago’s Youth Safety and Violence Prevention initiative (YSVP) has garnered national attention since its inception in 2013. YSVP’s unique approach can be summed up in its unofficial motto: Healing is Prevention. YSVP programs seek to end violence by helping young men and women recover from trauma they experience in their communities.
Through a trauma-informed lens, harmful behavior is a response to past or present traumatic experiences. YSVP programs seek to replace violent behavior and other harmful coping mechanisms with healthier adaptive skills while also rekindling young people’s hope and self-efficacy.
Empathy is key. YSVP programs use peace circle practices, which include a regular check-in where staff and participants briefly tell the group how they are feeling at the moment. The check-in gives youth the chance to air feelings or concerns while allowing all present to gauge the pulse in the room, thus ensuring subsequent activities remain safe and supportive.
YSVP curriculum is designed to remind youth that they are good, that their lives have value, and that their life experiences have given them insight and expertise. “For people who have experienced a lot of trauma this is not something they’re often told or that they think of themselves,” says Emalee Pearson, former Urban Warriors Program Director.
The Chicago Center for Youth Violence Prevention (CCYVP) has been a valuable partner, contributing resources and expertise to program development and evaluation from the start.
YSVP leaders don’t give up on anyone. Grant Buhr, former YSVP operations director, recounts a story of one young man who was unable to work in group settings because he was so frequently triggered by others. YSVP staff removed him from group activities, working with him instead one-onone to find counseling around the issues that he thought were driving his behavior. While he may not participate in youth activities and meetings, he has been able to remain connected to the Y community by appearing as a speaker at events. “He has a lot of gratitude for the Y, that we didn’t turn our back on him,” says Urban Warriors program director Emalee Pearson.
According to Meg Helder, senior director of program operations, YSVP is the only known voluntary violence cessation program for youth with this level of trauma. Other programs that address this youth population do so through mandated participation, for example as part of a criminal justice consequence. YSVP programs are ahead of the curve for pushing the standard of care further.