"You cannot live in the light and the dark."
That is one of the mottos of Action for a Better Community’s Milestones program, which helps young people ages 14 to 21 by offering them a haven from the streets four times a week.
And once ABC’s new Save Our Youth program kicks off later this year, any youth identified by that program’s staff may be funneled to Milestones.
Currently, many of the Milestones youths are referred by the courts, probation officers or other agencies. Some voluntarily enroll because their families need to put them on a better path, explained program director Paul McFadden.
Keith Holmes, 18, thinks it is time for Rochester to "Save Our Youth," he said during a May 20 Milestones session. Such change could only happen if adults address what’s going on in the households of many urban youths, he said.
"(Rochester) youth are growing up in a poverty-based environment," he said. "In order to save our youth, we need to change the environment they’re in."
There are only a few reasons why people are on the streets or join gangs, and they include a search for love and loyalty, said Barrington Price. These kids crave attention, and the age of gang members keeps getting younger, he said.
"They think they find the love they lack at home," he said. "It’s so sad. They don’t understand what comes from gang banging …. until somebody gets shot. Then they realize this gang life is not what they wanted."
What they don’t realize is that joining the "gang" life means if one member fights, they all fight, Brionne Williams said.
And youths are winding up on the streets because so many of those kids are not surrounded by adults in their lives who care, added Williams, 20. So, community organizations need to step up and have a presence on every street and corner, she said, "somewhere for kids to go when they need help because not too many adults are involved or don’t care."
Williams said that saving youths all comes down to saving families. Without a mom and a dad involved in their lives, urban youths don’t stand a chance, she said. Repeating those cycles of single-parent families is what the program calls "generational curses."
Williams wants to change her own path, which she said was headed in the wrong direction before she joined the Milestones program two years ago. She had been skipping school, getting into fights and doing whatever she wanted, she explained.
"I felt nobody cared, so I didn’t care about myself," she said. "I feel if everybody in the whole world had a mom and a dad, they would be better. They’d be OK."
McFadden strives to show these kids that he cares, as he counsels them during Milestones sessions. The program provides youths with the strategies to address the issues that are causing trouble in their lives and accomplish goals they set during program sessions, such as graduating from high school or getting their GEDs, added Chris Bell, ABC’s youth services department director.
The program was created seven years ago in response to the amount of violence taking place among youths around the city, added McFadden. These youths had no other resources and were facing barriers to academic success because of their poverty-based situations, he said.
Milestones has helped her focus and figure out what she needs to do personally to head in the right direction, Williams said.
"This group, I felt like it was family," she said. "It’s been a big part of my life."
Price, 18, a senior at East High School, said that he hopes to go on to college and maybe find a career in music. But to do that, he knows he must leave Rochester.
"I seen enough of the streets," he said. "I want to see beyond the streets, beyond Rochester. This is not all that there is to life."
He was mandated to the program after violation of a felony probation. He had been arrested for gun possession when he was 16 and had been given probation because he had a clean record.
Sending kids to jail doesn’t teach anyone anything because the same kinds of activities that led them to jail are found in jail, Price said.
Meanwhile, he said that more youths would find better alternatives to jail if the adults in their lives would not turn a blind eye when they see young kids fighting or "gang-banging" on the streets.
"They wash their hands of it instead of helping," he said. "If more people step up and help … instead of turning their backs, something might change.
"If nobody cares, why should we?"