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Peckham's ‘GO Program’ gives young people a second chance

Phillip Townsend stands in front of a classroom. He wears a black t-shirt and dark pants. The classroom has white walls. In this photo, Phillip is speaking to a young man, who is sitting in a chair with a dark blue sweatshirt.
Megan Schellong
Phillip Townsend stands at the front of the classroom at Peckham during a Growth Opportunities session.

Addressing a small group of students, Phillip Townsend leans back in his chair and presents a question.

“Can anybody define what 'goals' are?” he asks.

It’s Townsend’s first day as a violence prevention mentor with Peckham. The Lansing non-profit offers mentorship, employment opportunities and career building skills through a new program called Growth Opportunities, or “GO.” The initiative is designed for young people who have had run-ins with law enforcement, offering them support as they transition into the workforce.

Phillip Townsend is one of the mentors in the Growth Opportunities program. Here, he stands in front of half of the Growth Opportunities class.
Megan Schellong
Phillip Townsend is one of the mentors in the Growth Opportunities program. Here, he stands in front of half of the Growth Opportunities class.

Townsend spends his lesson emphasizing the harsh realities of growing up in communities where gun violence is common.

“For some of us, death is normal," he tells the group. "It's like such and such got killed, and you’re like, ‘oh, man, dang,’ and you move on."

Townsend has a personal connection to gun violence. For much of his life, he was incarcerated. He spent more than two decades in prison after he was convicted of aggravated assault in connection to a shooting.

But since getting out seven years ago, Townsend has made it his mission to steer young people away from violence. The 50-year-old also volunteers at Turning Point of Lansing, a non-profit that provides an Afrocentric mentorship experience to young Black men.

After the class, Townsend explained why he finds his work so important.

“When you do certain things to your community, you contribute to that problem," he said. "My job now is to come back and fix that which I took part of destroying."

While other community violence intervention initiatives have been in place for years, this is the GO program’s pilot year.

The U.S. Department of Labor is funding similar efforts across the country. In Michigan, Flint and Lansing were given a total of $2 million dollars for the training.

Peckham youth coordinator Karen Utsey said the goal is to keep young people off the streets and get them into jobs.

"They're not subject to their environment, and that they just had to be willing to take the first step,” she said.

Peckham has devised four phases to the GO program. First, violence prevention classes like Townsend's. Students then learn the basics of entering the workforce by preparing resumes and practicing their interviewing skills. Next, they’re partnered with local businesses for jobs, where they earn $15 per hour. Some of the employers include a nearby Meijer warehouse and Michigan State University’s Brody dining hall. Afterwards, mentors follow up with students to gauge their progress after they've completed the course.

“Once a person enters our program, we're with them for about a year and a half of their life,” Utsey said.

Samaria Camel is one of Peckham's current students. The 24-year-old got involved with the GO program to manage her anger issues, which developed shortly after her father passed away.

Samaria Camel is a 24-year-old Black woman. Here she poses in front of a wall. She wears a black sweater and a light colored knit sweater underneath.
Megan Schellong
Samaria Camel is 24 years old. Her goal is to figure out which career path interests her.

“My father was like the glue for everybody, and once he failed, then the whole foundation fell,” she explained.

Camel said she had a hard time showing up for school and was eventually charged with truancy. But she's been inspired to invest in herself.

"This program makes me want to carry myself a lot different from what I've been carrying myself. Stop being sloppy, stop being lazy, stop procrastinating,” Camel said.

At Peckham, students are given binders to jot down their weekly goals. Some want to pass their GED test, while others want to start a company or go to law school.

Sitting in class with her notebook open, Camel said she is reinventing herself.

"My goal was to find out what I could learn and benefit from. What else I can do in my life,” she said.

The sessions are already having an effect on its first graduates like Anthony Goodall, who completed the training in the spring.

"I went from basically this three-year-old mindset to acting older than what I am,” he said.

Goodall got involved with Peckham after being charged with truancy, but his participation in the class has given him new support systems. The 20-year-old said those resources have given him new direction in life, which includes plans to move down to Texas and starting a mechanic shop.

"I went from no car to no way of saving. Every time I got a check, I blew the check,” Goodall explained. “Now, I have my own apartment with a roommate. I drive a decently nice car. It's definitely a change."

In the next three years, the GO Program plans to serve 160 students between Flint and Lansing as it expands its goal of providing more career opportunities and second chances to young people that need them.

Megan Schellong hosted and produced Morning Edition on WKAR from 2021 to 2024.
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