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Catholic Charities program helps Buffalo teen turn his life around

WBFO News photo by Eileen Buckley

As the Buffalo Public School District works to keep troubled teens in the classroom, an outside program is assisting. Catholic Charities of Buffalo launched a new program last year called Project Jump Start.  In this Focus on Education report, WBFO'S Eileen Buckley had a chance to meet with a teenager with a juvenile record, who is now back on track with his school work and home life.

"My name is Ernest Robison. I was caught shoplifting at Walmart with a few friends," said Ernest Robinson, a 15-year-old Buffalo teen talking candidly about his past criminal behavior.

Robinson has just completed his freshmen year at McKinley High School in Buffalo. Last year,  as he was nearing an end to previous criminal troubles, his mother Avonia McCovery said her son was caught shoplifting, making him a repeat juvenile offender.

McCovery said her son's probation officer worked to help their situation.

"She had gave him a break, then he got in trouble again," and she told me and she told him next time I'm sending you in front of the judge and going to bring up everything you did bad, so I said listen you need to help me. We need to find him something to do so he won't be bored," said McCovery.

That's when McCovery learned about the Catholic Charities program Project Jumpstart.  It was established in early 2013.  Joseph Milazzo  is an educator at Catholic Charities and works with troubled youth ages 14 to 17 who have committed a crime.

"They  build a relationship with our counselors and educators, and we really kind of guide them along throughout the school year, so if they need us they can text us and they can come in. We work with them and keep them on track," said Milazzo.  "We are here during the school day and then afterschool as well. So we keep them on track, making sure they're coming to school on time."

The program provides tutoring, education services, community service work and job readiness training at over a dozen schools in Buffalo and Erie County. There are over 20-students enrolled in the program at McKinley.  

Robinson has conducted community service work on a farm and is also involved in other job service programs.  

"At first I was upset, then I found out the benefits that it can give to me, how to keep me active and keep me updated," said Robinson.  "It makes me feel better because I was steeling -- it makes me feel like putting it back -- giving back."                     

"Why did you do something like that?," asked Buckley in a WBFO News interview with Robinson.

"I just wasn't thinking.  I wasn't thinking of the consequences,"said Robinson. 

Since joining Project Jump Start, Robinson has remained out of trouble. McCovery admits some of her decisions with relationships affected her son and led to his bad behavior. She recalls the angry she first felt when he was in trouble, but reflects on how he has changed over the past year.

"And Ernest has been more responsible with Project Jump Start," said McCovery. "He has changed the people he hang around."

Project Jump Start is part of Catholic Charities Education and Workforce Development Department.  It also receives funding through a grant with the U.S. Department of Labor.  Students receive a paycheck for their work.  McCovery said her son has learned a lesson in responsibility while that earning money.    

"This program has been very great for him because it helps pay on those sneakers he like, cause I really can't afford for him to dress they way he do," said McCovery. "He gives me his check to deposit and he pays his own phone bill when he's working and he gives me an allowance."

Developing the community service projects and find work experience for the teens is Rich Paris.  He serves as employment counselor with Project Jump Start. He works directly with Robinson helping to teach him about managing his earnings.

"They always want to spend it right away, but we try to work with Ernest and coming up here over the summer -- we're going to talk about savings and responsibility," said Paris. "Once they get the money from these jobs, they want to spend it, and they're just kids -- and we allow them to do that, that's fine. But seeing Ernest over the last year he has matured into a young man so we're going to kind of take the next step with him and teach him about savings."

Paris noted it's not always easy to connect with the teens as some enter with an attitude, making it a challenge.

"Mainly I try to teach, and I teach this to every kid -- how to be a leader," said Paris.

"It's changed my life. I was living a different lifestyle and now I'm just a better person, I think," said Robinson.

"If this program wasn't in place at the time, I don't know where we would be," noted McCovery.

Paris noted when it comes to parental involvement it's about 50-50.  For students who don't have parental support, the program works to fill that gap.  McCovery's advice to other parents is always work to advocate for your children.

"I'm very proud of my son. He know that -- I call him the prince," said McCovery. Robinson now realizes his behavior affected his mother's life as well.  He said he respects his mother more now then he did when he was getting into criminal trouble.