Craig Young grew up in one of Baton Rouge’s roughest neighborhoods.
If not for the help of one determined volunteer, Young easily could have become another crime statistic.
Instead, the 21-year-old is now a junior at LSU, studying psychology.
Young says many people who lived near his childhood home on Erie Street, between Scenic Highway and Plank Road, carried guns, dealt drugs and encouraged him to do the same.
But the angel in his corner was Joanne Monjure, a soft-spoken speech therapist who took Young and his brother under her wing a decade ago after the boys’ mother died of a brain tumor.
“I’m really blessed to have Joanne in my life,” Young said. “If I didn’t, I definitely would be on the corner selling drugs, if not doing them.”
Monjure is among the hundreds of individuals and organizations trying to combat the crime problem in East Baton Rouge Parish — even if it’s just one person at a time.
Drugs are the leading cause of homicide in the parish, with most of the homicides committed with guns, law enforcement officials say. The people most affected by such crimes are young black men.
The majority, 83 percent, of those killed in East Baton Rouge Parish in 2011 were black men. A similar situation played out for the people arrested for homicides last year — 89 percent were black men, and 10 of them were teens. These statistics illustrate a trend in which black men were the majority of both the victims and the perpetrators of homicides in the parish.
A recent Wall Street Journal article highlighted this phenomenon in Baton Rouge and noted that while the U.S. murder rate has been dropping for years, the number of black men killed across the country increased more than 10 percent, to 5,942 in 2010 from 5,307 in 2000.
Experts say such statistics are due in large part to a social fabric torn by poverty, lack of education and the breakdown of the family. Many community organizations offer services to people affected by such issues, but more help is needed.
“There is definitely more need than services,” said Gaylynne Mack, executive director of the Big Buddy Program, which matches volunteer mentors with children who are economically, educationally or emotionally disadvantaged. “There is a big, big need.”
State and federal cuts to social service agencies have left many people without help, she said.
“The cuts are starting to bite people,” Mack said.
Cecile Guin, director of the Office of Social Service Research and Development at LSU, said the programs that are the most underfunded serve children on the verge of entering the juvenile justice system or who are already there. Instead of putting money into those types of programs, Guin said, the state funds prisons, court systems and death-penalty cases.
Reform can happen, she said.
“The key is to come up with a plan and slowly decrease the amount put into prisons and increase the amount dedicated to community-based programs,” she said.
The challenge with existing community programs, experts say, lies in connecting people with the right organizations and finding them transportation to access those services.
A new effort in East Baton Rouge Parish called the Family and Youth Service Center is trying to do that by putting representatives of many social service and law enforcement agencies under one roof.
“We’re trying to remove that barrier as best we can,” said Kevin Clement, who is special programs director for East Baton Rouge Parish Juvenile Court and a member of the Family and Youth Service Center’s board.
The service center opened Aug. 8. Director Roxson Welch said people have been seeking out its services even without formal advertising.
“They find us,” Welch said. “People just desperately need help, and the good news is they’re looking for it.”
Donations of time, services and materials from across the community have made the center a reality, she said.
“I’ve not had anybody who didn’t want to be a part of this,” she said.
The idea for the Family and Youth Service Center began in 2008 through an effort to examine the connection between school drop-out rates and juvenile crime.
Welch and other community leaders held numerous workshops over two years and determined that what was needed was a centralized place offering social services. In April, Gov. Bobby Jindal approved a three-year, no-cost lease for the center at the former site of the Louisiana School for the Visually Impaired at 1120 Government St.
The Family and Youth Service Center of East Baton Rouge is home to law enforcement and social service offices that are working together to help students and their families address problems that cause truancy. Welch said the number of groups getting involved increases daily.
In some cases, it’s as easy as getting a child a school uniform, Welch said. Other cases are more complicated and involve mental illness or drug and alcohol abuse, often combined with homelessness, she said.
“It doesn’t do any good to force a kid into school when they have all these other issues,” Welch said.
Growing up in north Baton Rouge, Young saw shootings, drug dealing and other crime.
“My uncles were ‘cracked out’ on drugs,” he said. “They did whatever they could do to get them.”
At night, Young said, hookers, drug dealers and dope users came in and out of his house, making it hard for him to sleep, much less do homework.
Meanwhile, he said, his grandmother was telling him that when he turned 16, he needed to drop out of school and get a job so he could contribute money to the household.
Young’s father was in and out of the picture. Young’s mother died when he was 10.
There were times, Young said, when he was tempted to quit school and give in to pressure by some neighborhood friends to commit crimes, but “I couldn’t put myself in that light.”
“I don’t know why,” he said. “I felt there had to be something more.”
Young and his 16-year-old brother, Joshua, met Monjure 13 years ago while she was teaching sign language to their mother, Diane Winley, who was losing her hearing because of a brain tumor.
Monjure said she felt compelled to step in after Winley died in 2002. Winley, Monjure said, wanted her boys to stay on the “right track.”
“Diane was a wonderful lady,” Monjure said. “She wanted her sons to have a good life.”
Monjure said the boys’ home life was affecting their ability to succeed in school, so she encouraged them to move out.
With the help of friends and community organizations, Monjure got Joshua, who is legally blind, enrolled in the Louisiana School for the Visually Impaired, where he is now a high school freshman.
Monjure convinced Craig Young to move into a group home run by Boys Hope Girls Hope, an organization that targets motivated, academically capable children who need help.
Funded by grants and donations, Boys Hope Girls Hope gives children a safe place to live in non-institutional homes staffed by live-in residential counselors. The organization also works to get children enrolled in area schools that best fit their needs.
Audra Ray, program director for Boys Hope Girls Hope of Baton Rouge, said she shepherded Young through the program, which allowed him to transfer from Scotlandville High to Catholic High, where he graduated.
Young’s transition into a structured environment was tough, Ray said.
“Craig always knew education was his ticket to a better life,” she said. “Structure and rules were his issue.”
But with a lot of work and “heart to hearts” with his mentors, Ray said, Young overcame his rebellion to curfews and set homework times.
“The community molded Craig into who he is today,” Ray said. “If people hadn’t gotten involved in his life, I’m convinced the temptations of his home life would have gotten the best of him.”
LSU’s Guin said one person can have a tremendous impact on an individual’s life.
“A child has to know they are No. 1 to someone, whether it be a family member or a surrogate family member,” Guin said.
Children who have made it through rough circumstances more often than not have a mentor who is a constant source of support.
“That’s the common denominator,” she said.
People who want to help can find opportunities at a variety of programs in the parish.
“We definitely need volunteers,” said Mack, executive director of the Big Buddy Program.
A person’s commitment can range from six to eight hours a month to one hour a week, Mack said.
“We can just about use anybody,” she said. “If people are serious in helping young people, we can help you get involved.”
Organizers at Boys Hope Girls Hope of Baton Rouge say volunteers are essential to helping promising students reach their potential in high school and in college.
“Without our volunteers, we wouldn’t be successful because they provide so much more than we can with our budget,” Ray said.
Liz Betz, executive director at Capital Area Court Appointed Special Advocates, said volunteers are a crucial component of the program.
With a staff of only 10, CASA couldn’t reach nearly the number of people it serves — 262 children last year — without its annual base of about 260 volunteers, who are trained to be advocates for children who have been abused or neglected by their caregivers.
“We’re completely volunteer driven,” Betz said.
Another tactic in the battle against crime is strengthening community ties, said the Rev. Donald Hunter, pastor of New Beginning Baptist Church on White Street in the north Baton Rouge neighborhood of Glen Oaks.
Glen Oaks residents recently got together to foster relationships that will lead to a safer community, he said.
Glen Oaks is in the 70805 ZIP code, which has been one of the hardest hit by violent crime. That area — bordered by Airline Highway to the north and the east, Choctaw Drive to the south and the Mississippi River to the west — accounts for 13 percent of the city’s population but 30 percent of its homicides.
Hunter helped organize a July 21 block party, where he met people he had never seen before.
Robert Bell, who helped host the event, said the same thing happened to him.
“I really enjoyed myself,” Bell said. “It paid off in an awesome way.”
Law enforcement is also tapping into the community’s social service organizations to try to curb crime. A new program called Baton Rouge Area Violence Elimination Project, or BRAVE, offers community resources to criminals in hopes of persuading them to choose a new path in life.
The premise behind the effort is that crime can be dramatically reduced when law enforcement, residents and social service providers engage with known criminals to communicate three messages:
The same strategies have been successful in cities across the country and are based on a program developed in 1995 called CeaseFire.
Baton Rouge Police Chief Dewayne White said he’s already beginning to see results from BRAVE, which is targeting violent offenders as well as drug offenders in the city’s 70805 ZIP code.
White said his BRAVE team has made more than 50 drug-related arrests, seized several weapons and met with at least 800 residents. All of these efforts, the chief said, have yielded zero complaints from the community. Some people, he said, are “singing our praises,” which is a huge “step in the right direction.”
Young, meanwhile, is trying to make a difference of his own in the community by working with people like himself.
As a youth training and support specialist with Families Helping Families, Young helps children and adults find the services they need.
“It’s important to give back to where you came from,” he said. “I want to give back as much as possible.”
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