Incarcerated youth focus of mentoring program

The archdiocesan Prison Ministry is asking local Catholics to prayerfully consider joining the ranks of a mentoring initiative set to make its Louisiana debut this fall.

The Kairos Torch Prison Ministry, an ecumenical, faith-based program that pairs adult male and female mentors with incarcerated youth, will launch in October at Bridge City Center for Youth, one of three Office of Juvenile Justice facilities in the state.

The center, the only one of its kind in the New Orleans area, currently houses 136 young men ages 11 to 19.

“For me, there are few things that are more joyous in this world than helping a young person reach their potential,” said John Messenheimer, Prison Ministry director for the Archdiocese of New Orleans. “There’s something intrinsically spiritual about visiting someone in prison. The Gospel of Matthew certainly sheds light on that when Jesus says, ‘I was in prison and you visited me.’”

Working with the incarcerated, particularly the young, also has the potential to deliver a major preventative impact on local communities, Messenheimer said. Young people who start out in youth facilities like the one in Bridge City can end up in adult facilities later in life.

“We never know how positive interactions and lifting someone up on their journey can help them to not do something harmful to someone else in the future,” Messenheimer said.

Training to start Aug. 30

Mentor training for the Kairos Torch initiative will roll out over five Saturdays beginning Aug. 30 and take place at various local churches. Trainees will be taught how to use Scripture as a springboard for their discussions with youth and as a road map to help them make positive life choices.

“Mentors will be taught how to understand and deal with some of the emotional dynamics of incarcerated youth – everything from anger and vulnerability to how to offer guidance to youth in reaching their potential,” Messenheimer said.

Following an introductory mixer, the mentor-mentee pairs will take a 2 1/2-day “Torch Weekend” retreat at the Bridge City facility in which they will construct masks representing the emotions and fears they use to hide their true selves. The retreat is designed to encourage participants to remove their masks and develop a more mature means of making choices.

“The masks that we put forward may not resemble who we really are or where God’s image really is within us,” Messenheimer said, noting that youth’s artistic skills will be called on to create the pieces. “During the course of the retreat they will dispose of their masks. It’s not just the youth, but also the adults who will create masks.”

Weekly commitment

The remainder of the six-month program will have mentors meeting with their mentees one-on-one for an hour on Tuesday nights and enjoying fellowship at monthly reunions with the larger group of program participants. A mentoring manual will walk the mentor-mentee pairs through every step of their sixth-month relationship.

Scripture is used to unpack the theme of each one-on-one mentoring session. For example, the session focusing on the concept of “You are not alone” calls on St. Paul’s observation in Romans: though we are many people, we are parts of one body, in union with Christ.

At the completion of the six months – the minimum time commitment expected of the adult mentors – a new cycle of mentorship begins with different mentor-mentee pairs. Each six-month cycle has a maximum capacity of 35 mentors.

Due to Kairos Torch Prison Ministry age requirements for volunteers, male mentors must be at least 24 (five years older than the oldest incarcerated youth); and female mentors must be at least 29 (10 years older than the oldest incarcerated youth). Married couples also are welcomed to team up as mentors for a single mentee or have his or her own mentee, Messenheimer said.

“In other areas of the country, they’ve had a lot of husband-wife participation,” he said.

A national Kairos Torch representative will lead an information session on the initiative planned for Bridge City Center for Youth Aug. 23 at 8:30 a.m. at Munholland United Methodist Church, 1201 Metairie Road, Metairie. The first training session is Aug. 30 at the St. Benilde Parish Youth Center, 1901 Division St., Metairie. For more information, call Messenheimer at 267-9727 or email jmessenheimer@arch-no.org. The website is www.nolatorch.com.

Beth Donze can be reached at bdonze@clarionherald.org.

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