Project in seventh year of pairing high-risk youths with mentors

Tusty ten Bensel is looking for persons interested in becoming more than volunteers – she is looking for mentors who can change lives.

Ten Bensel, an assistant professor in UALR’s Criminal Justice Department, is program coordinator for a federal initiative that identifies and reintegrates high-risk youths back into the community by pairing carefully selected mentors with them.

The project is in its seventh year of helping young offenders through the Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative, or SVORI. All SVORI youth are between ages 14 and 21.

The Arkansas Division of Youth Services (DYS) has partnered with UALR’s Criminal Justice Department and other community-based service providers, as well as local and state agencies, to assist the youths.

“It’s a good way for our criminal justice majors to get exposed to an area they are interested in,” said ten Bensel. “But mentors can come from all walks of life or other majors, as long as they are at least 21 or older.”

Ten Bensel said potential mentors must successfully pass an Arkansas State Police criminal records check and an Arkansas Central Registry check. A minimum of three references also is required.

In addition to their direct work with the youth, UALR students enroll in a course for academic credit that focuses on juvenile justice issues, successful reintegration techniques, and the importance of mentoring high-risk juvenile offenders.

Each mentor spends a semester just getting to know the youth with whom they have been paired, ten Bensel said.

“Not only do the mentors focus on improving juvenile’s behavior while in the facility by building healthy relationships, they bring a service component into the mentorship by taking them to such places as Heifer International and the Our House shelter for the homeless,” said ten Bensel.

Mentors are required to spend at least one hour of face-to-face time a week with youths while they are in a juvenile facility and a minimum of two hours a week once those youths are released.

Ten Bensel said the ultimate goal is a reduction in recidivism rates, as well as helping former youth become contributing members of society. The experience, she said, can be life-changing.

“I’ve found in talking to mentors, as the years have gone by, they develop such a bond with these youth they keep in contact long after the program ends,” she said. “For my students and the juvenile they serve, a lot of lives have been touched.”

For more details on the interview process and becoming a mentor, contact ten Bensel at 501.569.3195.

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