As the needs of children and youth change, many social service agencies have redefined their priorities.
A program responding to these challenges in Oak Park and River Forest has announced a new name to accompany its new direction.
The Youth Engagement Program, formerly known as the Youth Intervention Program, is the renowned approach that provides free services to people ages 6-18 in the Oak Park area.
Megan Traficano is a licensed clinical social worker who grew up in Oak Park and has served as the township’s Director of Youth Services since 2019.
“The program began in 1996 to address issues such as gang activity, violent behavior and substance abuse,” Traficano said. “It is renowned because today we see more of a need for mental health services than intervention.”
Operating from the Oak Park Township offices on Oak Park Avenue, the program has an annual budget of approximately $250,000 and is funded by the nine tax agencies it serves, which include the townships of ‘Oak Park and River Forest, park districts and library districts as well as the school. Wards 90, 97 and 200.
“The Oak Park Youth Services Department was established here in 1967 to help young people and, by extension, their families,” Traficano said. “It has been a very successful program since its inception and it still is today.”
The Youth Engagement Program employs seven staff members, including Youth Engagement Manager, Jonathan Brown.
“Originally, it was an orientation program where case managers went into homes to support youth and families with issues such as gangs, violent behavior and substance abuse,” Brown said. “Since then, we have needed mental health services, like helping children get back to school after the pandemic. But some of them just need a little mentoring in areas like decision-making skills, financial literacy, and managing their family situation.
Brown and youth engagement specialists Laura Devitt and Sofia Fernandez are all studying for their LCSW certificates under the supervision of Traficano.
Devitt hails from Oak Park and brings her creativity and artistic side to the programs she oversees.
“We did a ‘Poetry and Pancakes’ program last week at the local library,” Devitt said. “Kids choose a book on poetry, read it and then they get pancakes.”
The youth engagement program can handle a maximum of 50 cases at a time, Traficano said, including up to 20 clients each for Devitt and Fernandez.
“It’s definitely not an easy task,” Fernandez said. “I’ve been doing social work for three years and it’s great to give back to the community.
Brown said 75% of their social work interactions are in remote locations such as schools, parks and homes.
“Some prefer to come here to the township offices because they don’t want to meet in the schools, especially the older students,” Traficano said. “We will provide them with lunch and play games with them just to show that we want them to have fun and see that we are ordinary people too.”
Clients receive help by first completing a referral form, available on the township’s website, where anyone can recommend a young person who may need support services. Specific needs are then assessed by a social worker who meets with the child and family at the township office, home or the person’s school.
“Every case is different,” Devitt said. “We are working with them to find the best way to handle any issues they may be having. We never want to turn someone away and will refer them to other services if necessary to ensure they get the information they need. requires.
Traficano said it is the child who guides the social worker in determining what skills and information are needed and taught.
“If we don’t know an answer, we let kids know who to ask or where to find it,” Brown said. “And that’s another social skill, learning to ask questions. They are taught to defend themselves, to go out and find the answers.
Brown said that due to the pandemic, some younger children may have missed the chance to start school in groups.
“These children are now back in the classroom and learning to be with other students for the first time,” he said.
“One of the main things kids struggle with is social skills,” Fernandez said. “It has a lot to do with the pandemic and how they can now socialize and interact a bit more. It is necessary for all age groups.
One of the recent concerns of Youth Engagement Program staff has been cyberbullying through cell phone apps.
“We knew about Snapchat,” Brown said. “But there’s a new Tik Tok phenomenon called Duet where people can stand side by side in a reaction video laughing or teasing the other person. It’s a big cyberbullying problem that we weren’t aware until we find out from the school children.
Traficano said she and her staff are constantly learning from their clients “because you never know what each generation of kids is going to be in for. We want to make sure our programs stay fresh and that we are trained and ready to work with all young people and all issues.
Its message to the community is to provide help.
“Children shouldn’t be afraid to ask us for help navigating their young lives,” Traficano said. “We’re here to help, we’re here to listen, we’re here to create a safe space.”
For more information, visit www.oakparktownship.org or call 708-445-2727.