June 6, 2024

VCU-RRTC Partners on New Court-Involved Youth Project

Photo overlooking Richmond, Virginia.

RICHMOND, Va.- The Virginia Commonwealth University Rehabilitation Research and Training Center took a major step with a grant for Project Belong, a program that will address employment needs for 75 high-risk young adults with behavioral health disorders in Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center in Richmond, Virginia. Virginia Commonwealth University Rehabilitation Research and Training Center is a partner on Project Belong and the project is funded by the grant for the Bureau of Justice Administration. 

Karen Akom, the Director of Field Operations at CTI and Project Lead for Transition and Court-Involved Youth, explained how the grant will expand assistance to young adults in Bon Air. 

“The goal is to identify young adults who are getting ready to exit Bon Air, about 6 months before they are released and work with them to identify needs and partner with peer mentoring and other supports. The RRTC will have job coaches that go into Bon Air and meet with these young adults to go through the job development process, career awareness process, and identify where the needs are for that post secondary transition step.” 

Project Belong is led by Gary Cuddeback, Ph.D., the interim dean of Virginia Commonwealth University School of Social Work. The co-lead principal investigator, Courtney Holmes, Ph.D., the associate chair in the Department of Rehabilitation Counseling in the VCU College of Health Professions. Cuddeback and Holmes work with co-investigators Molly Hyer, Ph.D., the director of research development and innovation at the Institute for Women’s Health, and Sarah Jane Brubaker, Ph.D., the assistant chair of criminal justice programs in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs.

The steps towards obtaining a job are often ones overlooked by many. “It could be just help with writing a resume, accessing a good outfit for an interview,” Akom says. “Or it could eventually be supported employment for young adults that really need on-site job support to gain and maintain employment.” 

Project Belong compliments the efforts of the Transition & Court-Involved Youth project, which sent educators in juvenile detention centers in Virginia a needs assessment to identify the barriers and facilitators for the implementation of postsecondary transition service. 

Akom explained the process behind the assessment, saying “We looked in terms of what are things that are going to be helpful to educators, helpful to families, helpful to students, not just while they're in a detention setting, or a restrictive setting, but beyond” Akom explained. “The idea is that you get the information that you need to do some transition planning, but you also get the information that can prompt some conversations.” 

Project Belong will help guide these conversations as the paths of young adults at Bon Air vary. Akom’s goal with the postsecondary transition service is to prepare them for their own goals for the future. 

“We want every student to be able to reach their potential…and so when we have students leaving, we want them to leave with a high school diploma, or a GED, or whatever they want to earn that sets them up to go to training, go to community college, go to a four year college, go get a job, if that's what they're ready to do. But that we're not the ones making that choice, the student is making that choice.”

To reach these goals, Project Belong will match students with a job coach and a peer mentor. Akom explains the hope is that the students “work with someone to set their own goals to make a plan that's achievable for them. Which includes family engagement and building that support network.” 

While Project Belong is still in its planning stages, there are currently new activities being added such as training modules on topics that include job development, self-care, and motivational interviewing.