Commentary: Roca transforming lives in Lynn

Joey and Chris probably didn’t see themselves becoming role models for other high-risk young men in Lynn — but that’s exactly what they are today due to their own incredibly hard work and support from this community and its partners. 

When we at Roca first met Joey and Chris, they were not the same young men that they are today. Like so many, they have different backgrounds and different challenges they’ve had to overcome. 

When Joey came to Roca in Lynn, he was actively gang involved, street involved, and had been in and out of jail since he was 15. He had relapses and bounced from one job to the next. Chris was dealing drugs and had ongoing substance abuse challenges. He was fired several times from transitional employment programs, threatened staff, and refused treatment again and again. 

Still, through all of it, we never gave up on them — and neither did they. This is the Roca model: to reach out relentlessly, knocking on their door again and again, and give the support they need to transform their lives. 

We seek to prove with all young people that their unwillingness to participate and their anger, even with us, is no deterrent. We are invested, through the relapse, until it works. 

Last month, I had the privilege of introducing Joey and Chris as recipients of this year’s Vichey Phoung Peace Award for their amazing progress. 

They graduated from our work program, successfully held employment and, having met through the Roca, are now the godfathers to each other’s children and a support to one another. It’s an honor to have been alongside them as they’ve invested in themselves and grown into the open-minded, empathetic and expressive young men that they are. I have learned just as much from them as they have learned from me.

There are many young people out there like them, not just here in Lynn, but in communities across the state. The world is still very dangerous for them — emerging adults between the ages 17 to 24, with prior arrests and incarceration, exposure to drugs and substance abuse, gang involvement, and who are not willing or able to go to school or work.

Progress has been made in reducing urban crime — and our law enforcement, schools, community leaders and programs, locally and around the nation, should celebrate that. 

All of us know our work is far from done — particularly when it comes to reaching those who are at the highest risk of committing and being victims to the worst violence. 

The reality for them is, too often, jail or death. More must be done.

It takes time, and the right opportunities, but these men can learn the skills they need to break destructive cycles and change.

Lynn is one of 21 communities where Roca operates. Our small team uses Roca’s disruptive model to engage young people, work with them to build consistency, and help them regulate their emotions through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. 

We show up for them when they’re not ready to show up for themselves. And we’ve seen results.  

We can’t do it alone. Which is why we are always striving to build relationships with community leaders, law enforcement, and other organizations and local programs, including LYSOA Inc., to better serve our young people.

We’re very proud of our subsidized employment program through the Salem Department of Public Works. Crew members work every day and are paid for the hours they put in. For some of them, this is the introduction to employment structure and the first real job they have ever held. 

In coordination with Judge Matthew Nester, we also hold weekly Hub meetings with community providers to build an outreach plan for services for high-risk individuals, breaking down the service silos and promoting collaboration.

As we look ahead, we hope to continue to have these important discussions, to get more young people involved, and strive to always find new ways to improve. 

At times, the work can be difficult, even painful. Still, we make the choice to hold on to hope. We can help young people transform their lives. We know change is possible.

Emily Fish is Director of Roca Lynn, a nonprofit operating on Andrews Street which for three years has been working with some of the highest risk young people in our city.

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