08/14/05 — Love is behind success of Connect Four program

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Love is behind success of Connect Four program

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on August 14, 2005 2:06 AM

A program aimed at turning young people from criminal activity relies on family connections to change their behavior.

Connect Four was developed as a way to divert juvenile offenders from progressing into a life of crime, but Kimberly Armstrong, the program's founder and executive director, said love is behind its success and providing hope is its most powerful tool.

"I think what's happened is that folks have been in such turmoil all their lives. It's about getting them to see that you can be beyond your circumstances," she said. "Love is the nucleus. That's what brought Connect Four where it is.

"We have to come and put hope back into their lives - hope beyond where I am ... that I can be more than what others have projected me to become."

She said that for many, life is like traveling down a highway so fast that a person doesn't see the attractions along the way.

"Many are working on careers or distracted by other things," she said. "We don't take the time to sit and see what the real issues are."

The program's name represents a typical family unit -- mother, father, sister, brother. It was introduced in 2003 through the Wayne County Juvenile Crime Prevention Council as a way to unify, strengthen and preserve families. A youth's behavior may have prompted the referral, but the entire family is required to attend the weekly sessions.

The two-hour meetings are individually designed for each family but follow a basic guideline, said Ms. Armstrong.

"We discuss communication skills, anger management, how to deal with reality issues," she said. "However, if we see that we have a lot of kids in for larceny, for example, we tailor it to that."

Ms. Armstrong said most families have reached an impasse in their relationships when they first attend a conference.

"Families who come to our program had gotten to the point that they didn't know what they were going to do," she said. "Children feel mom doesn't understand, dad doesn't understand. Parents are through and don't know what else to do."

Ms. Armstrong said she tells families at the outset that no matter what brought them there, everyone has a clean slate and the opportunity for a fresh start.

"The first session is a reality check," she said. One technique used is to show newspaper clippings of incidents in which young people have died violently.

"I let them know your life is at stake," she said. "We're not an assembly line situation; we'd like for you to choose life."

She cites concern about gang situations in Goldsboro as an issue for some.

"There are certain areas they're not allowed to go because of where they're from, because they're likely to be shot," she said. "I couldn't believe this.

"Some don't go to the new theater or the mall because they're subject to having their life taken or it's threatened."

Ms. Armstrong said she has had some gang representation in the program, although they are not usually identified as such.

"We don't know who it is, but tell them, 'Once you come here, put your differences aside,'" she said.

She recalled one young man who had been in the program but died in July in a gang-related, drive-by shooting. He was 16 years old.

"When I say reality, that's exactly what I mean, right here in Wayne County," she said. "He was in the program, very likable, knew this one and that one. Now I have a clipping of him, too ... It really grieved my heart to see that."

She said sharing such "close-to-home" revelations often help to initiate the needed changes in behavior..

"They come in the first night, rigid, don't want to be there but they transform that first night," she said. "At the very end of that first session, they have gained a newfound respect for life; the parents have gained a newfound respect for their child."

Once involved in the session, family members are forced to take a long hard look at themselves, she said.

"They have to stop all the things going on in their life," she said. "Everything comes to a halt as they are forced to listen.

"We give them everything that comes up in our minds and our spirit. Hopefully, they'll take it and glean from it."

Beyond the weekly group meetings, staff members become a type of family coach, calling during the week to lend support and ask questions. Ms. Armstrong also leads one-on-one sessions with the families.

Ongoing needs have caused the program to expand in many ways. The first year it met for eight weeks, but because of varying progress rates, it is now set up as a 12-week program.

The number of families who have become involved in the program has exceeded initial expectations.

"Last year, we said we would do 30 families," Ms. Armstrong said. "We did 46."

This year's goal is to serve 40 families, but is likely to surpass that. The new program year began in July and 15 families enrolled.

Court referrals are for youths ages 10 to 17. But more parents are beginning to take the initiative and are showing up with younger children in tow.

"Parents are bringing their children with discipline problems at a younger age," she said. "Maybe around 9 years old or under the requirement."

Ms. Armstrong said she is reluctant to turn any away.

"When the court counselor sends us referrals and we have to put that child on hold, you don't know what the future holds," she said. "We try to get our hands on them before they're lost - removed from the home or something has happened."

Demand for the program is growing, as is the list of success stories, Ms. Armstrong said. Parents, in fact, are often getting as much from the program as their children.

"We're trying to put back into the parent the idea of how proud they were when that child was born," she said.

"That's the beautiful thing of the program, re-introducing love that people have lost or haven't felt before."

Court officials have also been appreciative of the program's efforts, Ms. Armstrong said.

"If it wasn't successful, (court counselors) would be looking for other programs," she said.

Sudie Davis, chairman of the Juvenile Crime Prevention Council, echoed Ms. Armstrong's comments.

"Their evaluation of Connect Four was top-notch," she said.

Grants keep the program going, providing most of its needs and paying for five staff members to lead it. But there are always things outside the grants' provisions, Ms. Armstrong said.

"Some families come with needs that the grant can't cover," she said. "Donations are always welcome and would be a great help to us and our families."

Contributions can be sent to Connect Four, c/o Kimberly Armstrong, P.O. Box 11124, Goldsboro, NC 27534. Contact number is 731-7733.