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How the YMCA of Central Ohio is creating safe learning spaces as school suspension alternatives through the Juvenile Justice Program. 

The YMCA of Central Ohio is proving that community recreation centers are more than a place to work out through its Juvenile Justice Program.

The Positive Alternative Learning for Students (PALS) program serves as a structured and supervised environment for 6th to 12th grade students as an alternative to being suspended from school.

Don Heard, the executive director of the YMCA Juvenile Justice Program for the Central Ohio Y, said a typical day is started by kids being bused to the Y from their school. 

From there, days include going through searches for contraband, independent study time, intake interviews where the staff can gain a better understanding of the kids and help build their trust, guest speakers, lunch, a discussion about current events, then time to play in the gym.

Guest speakers vary from the Journey Center for Safety and Healing to discuss healthy relationships, to the Huckleberry House — a safe house that kids can go to if they’re being threatened by their parents or if they need time away, to former offenders and criminals who have turned their lives around.

According to Heard, there are a plethora of benefits for the participants.

“We’re not a detention center and we’re not a juvenile prison camp; we’re a safe place where members downstairs are working out and getting their fitness on or swimming,” said Heard. “So, one benefit is they’re connecting with the Y and that can be a lifelong relationship as they become an adult, and for their children.”

juvenile justice program

The PALS program is possible through ongoing donor support.

Other benefits include students getting credit for attending and completing the program with no issues, and the opportunity to be linked up to a mental health counselor and resources through North Central Mental Health Services.

Most importantly, the kids are gaining a mentorship and are being surrounded by people who care about them and want them to succeed.

“I think that’s one of the biggest advantages,” explained Heard. “When a student is suspended from school, we’ve pretty much given up on that person and told them, ‘We don’t want you in our building,’ and ‘We don’t value you as a student here. We don’t want to educate you anymore.’ That was a message I think some school districts were sending early on. That has luckily changed over the past years.”

Since 2000 through the PALS program and the truancy centers the YMCA operated for 18 years, 60,000 kids in the Columbus, Ohio area have been serviced. 

It has given them a safe place to learn, kept them out of serious trouble during the day and, most importantly, created a positive relationship with mentors and the YMCA as a whole. 

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Taylor Brown

Taylor Brown is the assistant editor of Community Rec Magazine. She can be reached at taylor@peakemedia.com.

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