Taylor Diversion Programs ‘focuses on the strengths’ of At-Risk Youth

February 29, 2016
By STACEY GROSS (sgross@timesobserver.com) , Times Observer

“We don’t treat kids differently,” Mike Cummings, executive director of Taylor Diversion Programs, said of his program’s philosophy. “We treat them individually.”

Mike and his wife Debbie started Taylor Diversion Programs – in Tionesta, Forest County – in April of 2014. They’d both worked for different organizations with at-risk youth, said Debbie. “We know exactly what not to do with kids.”

“Kids do things for a reason,” Debbie went on to say. Their program, she explained, seeks to focus on the reasons they do the things they do. “We like to focus on the strengths,” she said.

The Cummings interview every admission to their program. The balance of personalities between the not more than 30 kids at a time, said Mike, is very important to the success of each person individually as well as that of the group as a whole.
According to Mike, the program has turned away around 60 kids so far. There have been a few, he said, that have come to the program only to be removed from it shortly thereafter. “The kid has to be ready and willing to make some movement,” he said, meaning that the youth the program accepts are those who show a concerted interest in and willingness to make changes to their lives that will ensure their ability to be diverted from the juvenile justice system in the first place. That is, after all, the goal of the organization, which is a 501(c)3.

Taylor Diversion Programs is licensed to serve 17 youth, five girls and 12 boys, ages 14 to 21. The organization currently operates the Lighthouse Academy, which provides the academic portion of the programming. The academy holds a private academic license from the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

But, as Debbie said, “I knew it would take more than one program to reach the whole child.”

And the whole child is what Taylor Diversion Programs — note the plurality of the organization’s title – seeks to address.

Aside from the educational component addressed through the Lighthouse Academy, the organization also operates the Forest Folk School, a concept they transplanted from the North House Folk School in Grand Marais, Minnesota. Seeking an example of ways to “instill old ethics, values, and beliefs” in a clinical, though nontraditional, setting such as theirs, Debbie said that she stumbled across the website for North House online. “When I hit that link,” Debbie said, our whole world changed.” The family flew to Grand Marais, where they spent some time learning the system, and trying to assess whether something like North House would fit in Tionesta. They also spent some time making connections with the Scandanavian craftsmen there. When the decision to move forward with the Forest Folk School was made, so were relationships with some of the people who would present their workshops.

One of those people was James “Sparky” Sparks, who came to Tionesta from Minnesota for the first time in September of 2014 to teach a workshop on building cedar strip canoes. He came again in June of 2015 and stayed until August, building another boat and teaching Mike to build them himself, so that he could teach the workshops on his own. Turns out, Mike may not have to. Sparky was back in November of 2015, staying until January 2016 to hunt and will be back this May for yet another boat building workshop, during which two more boats will be constructed. And with their community based license, said Debbie, anyone from the area can take part.

What initially inspired Debbie to create the Folk School was the memory of her grandfather Jesse. “He was one of the humblest, most hardworking, loving, peaceful men I knew,” she said. She described how he would whittle tree branches into crochet hooks and then make mittens and hats for his grandchildren. It got her thinking about the disconnect between youth and the aging population, and how the misconceptions about one another go both ways. “There’s such a gap between our youth and our older folks,” she said. Yet, when kids in the program get their hands into traditional skills like bow or arrow making, canning, and other crafts that people would have considered simple life skills years ago, and do so with the help of an intergenerational mentor, Debbie said there’s more than just an arrow or a jar of jelly at the end of the process. The kids come to learn something about the elders, she said. And the elders come to learn that “the kids are still just kids.”

The Cummings agreed that one of the things they combat the hardest is the community’s perception of the kids they serve.

Taylor Diversion Programs serves at-risk youth, which is an umbrella term including adjudicated delinquent and dependent juveniles.

“Delinquent” is a term of the criminal justice system meaning that a person has committed a crime. “Dependent” is a term used by child protective services which indicates that a court has intervened in a family situation because, as Mike said, “through no fault of the kid, placement is needed.” These could be situations such as drug abuse in the family, lack of appropriate parenting, or any situation by which a court can remove a child from his or her home and place them in another housing situation.

People think that ‘at risk’ means these are kids who are bad aren’t smart, or can’t learn, said Dr. Kathleen Smith, Taylor Diversion Program’s Vice President.

Mike and Debbie agreed, saying that many of the concerns about a program such as theirs overlook the fact that, as Mike said, “it’s not the kids who are being supervised you should be worried about. Its the one’s who aren’t.” And as for being able to learn, Debbie said that they have had several kids come into their program who were failing on their way in the door and walked out graduating with honors.

Several of their former students have left the program to enter higher education, through Clarion and Point Park University, with another attending an art internship in Erie and planning to follow through with art school in the fall. Others have joined the Army or taken advantage of the program’s Pennsylvania Academic Career Technical Training (PACTT) affiliation – the program is one of fifty affiliates in Pennsylvania – to gain certifications in programs such as ServSafe, and OSHA 10. Taylor Diversion Programs is working to provide certifications is programs such as welding in the future. They have also recently received a grant from PACTT to install a commercial kitchen on the campus from which students will be able to “serve fishermen on the river,” Debbie said.

Carolyn Stubler, of the PACTT Alliance of Pennsylvania, said of the organization, “they are doing really great things with the youths there. Taylor Diversion is a very unique program in Pennsylvania offering many “outside-of-the-box” learning opportunities. I love working with their people and their creativity.”

While the organization is a clinical one, providing clinical services in a clinical setting, said both Mike and Debbie, it takes a different approach to clinical work in both strategy and technique. Their programs of folk and life skills as well as their nature, strength based approach to clinical work mean that, as Debbie said, “a counseling session could be fishing on the river.” While they teach core classes like English, Math, Social Studies and Language Arts, the school offers certified instruction in archery and fly fishing as electives.

And while they “focus on the rural populations of the western part of the states,” Mike said, the program offers an opportunity for kids who’ve never been out of the city to mix with rural peers, and try things they’ve “always been wanting to do and never had the opportunity,” said Mike.

Times Observer photo by Stacey Gross
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