NACA and County Juvenile Courts partner for youth wellness

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - A partnership between Native Americans for Community Action (NACA) and Coconino County Juvenile Courts is trying to promote the wellness of youth and their families using culturally based assessment education and treatment.

NACA received a one-year grant through the Navajo Nation bordertowns Initiative, which seeks to make services available to those living in the Bordertowns. Since September when the program got up and running, NACA has used indigenous values based on respect and harmony to prevent, reduce or eliminate substance use, mental disorders, domestic violence and other abuses.

"We partnered with Brian Matsuda and the staff at the juvenile courts," said Cheri Wells, director of behavioral health at NACA. "This program has a lot of potential for growth, which is very exciting."

The partnership has a few goals. One of those goals is to identify and provide treatment to address substance abuse, co-occurring disorders, intimate partner violence, anger management and issues related to parenting Navajo youth using culturally based practices and hands on learning.

Another is to reach 90 percent of all Navajo youth in detention to provide onsite screening and refer those youth to appropriate services.

A final goal is to retain a minimum of 50 percent of the identified kids in diversion programs that will address each kid's needs and their support systems.

In a consensus building activity, the youth in the program chose the name "Pursuit of Change."

One of the components of the program is focused on kids who are in detention right now. Twice a week, a case manager for NACA, Jacob Kaulaity, and Wells participate with the kids in leadership activities.

"The activities are all within the Navajo education philosophy using the Medicine Wheel and we describe protective factors using traditional teachings that are universal," said Wells. "So it's for the Native and the non-Native youth."

A traditional practitioner from the community who is on staff at NACA runs the Talking Circles.

"By offering the choice of having Talking Circle, we are also acknowledging the needs of traditional families," Wells said.

A second part of the program is for kids who are on probation. Again, twice a week therapists facilitate a White Bison Medicine Wheel 12-step program where the kids use Native values and get an opportunity to learn about cultural identity as a protective factor.

On Wednesday afternoons a wellness program at the NACA Health Promotions Building takes place where the kids are able to meet with a personal trainer and start a fitness program and address health and wellness questions they may have.

After the fitness program, the kids participate in the same leadership program that the kids in detention participate in, providing continuity after they have been released from juvenile detention.

NACA's programs don't just support youth. The families of the kids in detention and those on probation also have access to the services at NACA. They can go through the triage process, have an assessment done, have family counseling, parenting classes, individual counseling for youth and adults as well as the many other services NACA provides, such as primary care at NACA's Family Health Center, wellness programming with health and fitness education classes, diabetes prevention programs, workforce development, social services, and more.

"It's an inclusive and holistic program," Wells said. "The target of course is Navajo youth but the Pursuit of Change program is open to all youth when space is available. What many people in the community don't know is that although we are an Urban Indian center NACA also serves non-Native people."

Wells explained that the youth are not court-ordered into the program. Participation is voluntary and many of the participants say that they look forward to the weekly sessions.

The kids in the program range from 13-17 years old. While the program prefers to focus on the present and moving forward, most of the kids are on probation for substance abuse related offences.

"They don't typically disclose why they are in detention," Wells said. "We acknowledge that things happened, and acknowledge that choices were made that got them into this space and now they have a big choice-to move forward. We ask them how they plan to change their choices to be positive when they are released."

One youth said, "I learned that I can choose what I want to do with my life...it's all up to me."

Another participant said, "I really like this class. It helps me see who I am."

Wells described the programs offered as an opportunity for kids to learn and gain insight into their behaviors, to learn there is time to think before acting and to think about the impact their behavior has on the people around them.

"We talk a lot about communication skills and putting effort into what you do, taking responsibility and using respect, leadership skills," Wells said. "I think part of the success of the program is that we do experiential based learning, hands on activities and games that have them up and moving."

In addition to Wells and Kaulaity, an intern, there are two youth care workers in the room, which makes it possible for conversations that are started to continue even when Wells and Kaulaity leave, which is important for the kids.

Wells said she believes the program is targeting a population that has not always been reached with other programs.

"It just seems to be that we are really filling a niche that hasn't been filled in an effort to reach families with services to meet their basic needs and to work collaboratively with juvenile courts to reduce recidivism. We appreciate the opportunity to partner with Brian Matsuda and his staff. Without mutual support, it wouldn't be possible to have this program," Wells said.

More information about the Pursuit for Change program or about NACA is available at (928) 526-2968 or by visiting www.nacainc.org.

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