A program created by New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell to support teenagers caught up in the criminal justice system has resumed in full this summer after a months-long delay in city funding put its services on pause.

The Pathways program, which helps the 14- to 17-year-olds develop “soft skills” and secure internships with local employers, stopped taking new participants in January after running out of funding, said Kendra Parson, the program’s director.

The program, established by Cantrell in 2019, was previously funded by a W.K. Kellogg Foundation grant that ended last year. Although the city allocated $900,000 in federal pandemic aid in December to sustain Pathways and another youth internship program called Summer Success, Pathways didn’t receive any of the money until May, Parson said.

Asya Howlette, director of the city’s Office of Youth and Families, which oversees the program, said the cause for the delay was a bureaucratic backlog as the city worked on contracts for the millions of dollars in one-time funds flowing to various projects. “It was a really awful experience for their team and us as an office,” Howlette said.

Unable to pay her 10-person staff during that period, Parson urged her team to find ways to make money elsewhere. Still, staff continued to hold meetings and field calls from former program participants, connecting them to social services and resources as needed, workers said in interviews with Verite.

“I said, ‘I need y’all to eat.’ And some people started Ubering, some people took on part-time jobs,” Parson said. “And when it was time to come back, everybody came back.”

The bulk of the city’s $900,000 American Rescue Plan Act allocation will go toward another year of operations for Pathways, with Summer Success receiving about $165,000. (The New Orleans Community Support Foundation, a nonprofit managed by the Greater New Orleans Foundation, will also receive a 10% fee as the fiscal agent.)

The program was caught in controversy last year after Cantrell attended the sentencing of one of its graduates, a 14-year-old who received probation for three carjackings he committed when he was 13. The mayor’s support of the teenager, whom she had met through the program, drew criticism from the victims in the case and others.

Cantrell defended her appearance in court, noting the teenager’s participation in the program and saying she was “supporting a young person who has demonstrated that they are willing to make better decisions,” WWL-TV reported. 

The subsequent local and national outrage — Tucker Carlson blasted the mayor on Fox News — overshadowed what the program actually does in its aim to support young people in need of second chances, Pathways staff said.

“We just all live better together when our young people are on the same path,” said Aureal Buckner Alexander, the program’s assistant director.

Parson, a longtime social worker, said the 15-week program’s holistic approach aims to support the teenagers across various aspects of their lives. The teens learn to use mindfulness and meditation as a foundation to develop self-control and manage their anger in situations they can’t control, like the array of external environmental factors that may cause stress in their lives. Those skills come in handy as the teens take on paid internships with local employers partway through the program, she said.

Program staff members advocate for the teens at school and in court, design safety plans for youth worried about gun violence, and stock toothpaste and other hygiene supplies in their office space at the Allie Mae Williams Center in Central City.

Some teens are court-ordered to Pathways, while others are referred by the District Attorney’s Office, social workers and even other program participants. The program continues to offer case management and support for graduates, along with another 15-week leadership program for alumni that prepares them to mentor their peers.

Pathways has graduated 68 young people since the fall of 2020, Parson said, and more than 30 people are currently enrolled. She said only nine of the graduates have been arrested or been charged in the two months following the program, contributing to an 11% recidivism rate, a statistic it reports along with other data to the Office of Youth and Families. (The program does track participants beyond those two months, Parson said, but only a couple of the graduates have re-entered the system past that timeframe.)

Some of the work the program does — developing relationships and building trust with the teenagers and their families — is hard to quantify, according to the organizers.

Ronisha Hawthorne, who completed Pathways when she was 17, said she especially appreciated the program’s focus on mindfulness and its emotional support for participants. Now 19, Hawthorne continues to stay in touch with Pathways staff as she works toward her GED, she said. “It’s like a safe place for me.”

Parson is also seeking grants from other sources, so that her company, the Gracefully Mindful Wellness Institute, can continue to sustain the Pathways program without being entirely reliant on the city.

State Rep. Mandie Landry, D-New Orleans, also recently secured $650,000 from the state for the program, Howlette said.

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Michelle previously worked for The Associated Press in South Carolina and was an inaugural corps member with the Report for America initiative. She also covered statewide criminal justice issues for Mississippi...