Community leaders in Lafayette are rallying together to give local teens in a criminal justice diversion program another layer of support through a new adventure-based mentorship initiative. 

The initiative, Project Choices, is a partnership between 100 Black Men of Greater Lafayette, Team Adventure Games and the 15th Judicial District Court’s Juvenile Specialty Court to provide teenagers in the diversion program mentorship and build their self-esteem, 100 Black Men chapter president Alton Trahan said.

The group will meet once a month on Saturdays for roughly four hours while Team Adventure Games President Earl LeBlanc, volunteer mentors and court staff lead the teens through team building and self-discovery exercises embedded in hands-on learning games, like walking as a team on shared skis and scaling a 10-foot wall, LeBlanc said.

LeBlanc has led his program for 25 years and said participants walk away with a sense of self-empowerment, accountability and a greater can-do spirit. Each activity offers metaphors for real life that are probed in debriefing conversations after the games; in an adapted game of tag where capture is inevitable, LeBlanc flips the conversation to probe what the teens feel is inevitable in their own lives.

It’s a process that allows them a door to explore their emotions, their goals and challenges while learning coping skills and tools for success through problem-solving and engagement, he said.

“The whole process is giving them an experience where they can see what success feels like and sounds like and looks like, and then saying let’s go recreate that in the real world. Here are the tools, then we guide them to the bridge of their own real world,” LeBlanc said.

“There’s no failure in these exercises. We always bring them to a solution. That’s the message we want them to walk away with: we only have one life but we can make many attempts at getting it right….It’s OK to make a mistake, but learn from it and move on to something that’s more successful,” he said.

The teens in the program range from ages 15 to 18 and have been referred to the court’s diversion program by the district attorney’s office, attorneys and probation officers, court case worker Megan Harrison said. Each child struggles with substance abuse and addiction issues, and through the diversion program they receive personalized assistance and service referrals.

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Harrison and her fellow case worker manage about 30 teens, guiding them as they meet requirements for court appearances, school attendance and drug testing, among other responsibilities. The participants advance through the program’s four phases by earning points for executing their duties, she said.

The Project Choices initiative builds on the court’s holistic approach by offering wraparound community support. Many of the children don’t have adequate home and community support systems and understanding their self-worth is important for their growth; the hope is seeing community adults invest in them will help drive that message of worth home, Harrison said.

The case worker was all smiles watching the teens laugh, run and engage Saturday morning. Herself eight years sober, Harrison has been on the other side.

“I was in drug court. I had a rough upbringing, and that’s why I do what I do — to show them that no matter what you’ve gone through in life you can have a good outcome,” she said.

Trahan said the teens will set SMART — specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-based — goals with their caseworkers throughout the program. After each gathering they’ll evaluate how they’re progressing toward their goals, then at the next adventure meeting mentors will help the teens address areas where they’re struggling. The pilot program is projected to last six months, he said.

The 100 Black Men chapter president said their group has seen how mentoring can uplift children while working with the Lafayette Parish School System and in a previous partnership with LeBlanc and Lafayette Consolidated Government for their 3L Project.

“We really see the need for mentoring through these types of activities to help some of the kids in the community grow and develop to become productive citizens. We’re encouraged anytime we start one of these programs or mentor kids in general because we always learn something new from them, and we hope they learn something from us to help them make better choices in life,” Trahan said.

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