Students connect with youth through UNL mentoring program

When Nedhal Al-kazahy first met her mentor Alison Brokke, she felt a friendship spark, even though Brokke would later tell Al-kazahy she thought Al-kazahy hated her. 

But through a University of Nebraska-Lincoln class that focuses on a mentor program within the juvenile justice system, their friendship was created and continues to grow even after they both exited the program. 

Anne Hobbs, director of the Juvenile Justice Institute, said she began the Juvenile Reentry Mentoring Program in 2012. The program is a special topics class that pairs students with kids in Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers across the state. Hobbs said students have weekly contact with their mentees whether it’s through letters or visits. 

Hobbs said the institute started the program after seeing results from a study they conducted.

“We do predominantly research at the institute, so we were asked to study why in Lancaster County at that time they had a bunch of kids coming back to YRTC,” she said. “Initially, we were called in to study that phenomenon. What we found was kind of alarming statistics.”

Hobbs said 40% of youth who left the facilities were returning within a few months. They also found the average number of placements for youth was 11, which Hobbs said most of the youth had been through before their 16th birthday. 

Hobbs said she interviews potential students to make sure they understand the commitments before allowing them to join the class. 

“She sat down with us, and more than anything she explained to us that it would be a driving commitment,” said Kylen Curry, junior criminal justice major. “There’s a certain amount of flexibility that is required with this course.”

Curry said her mentee is at Uta Halee Academy in Omaha because she had no one left to take care of her. All of the potential mentees are chosen for the program because they have no visitors and want to have a mentor, according to Hobbs. 

“[My mentee] started making a connection very quickly,” Curry said. “She’s always been amazingly open for what she’s gone through. As much as I get to be there for her success, I think it’s a whole different thing for me when she started crying with me and telling me, confiding in me what is really hurting her.” 

Al-kazahy said having an adult outside of the system was the connection she needed as a youth at the YRTC in Geneva. 

“What I liked about [Alison] was that she was never a professional; she was my friend right off the bat,” she said. “I could tell she had feelings. She didn’t cover those like a social worker does usually. She was like a sister. She opened up about everything; we talked about it all. There was nothing that she held back. I like that she showed her raw emotion."

While mentees are in the treatment centers, mentors visit them about every three weeks and send letters every week, according to Hobbs. Once the youth are released from the centers, Hobbs said she encourages students to take them to hang out at the movies or restaurants. 

“I try to have them line up something that is kind of a spark or hobby for the youth,” she said. “We really try to tap into something that the kid is really good at, because most of their lives somebody’s been telling them what they’re bad at.”

Al-kazahy said Brokke would visit her after she was released from the YRTC in Geneva. 

“Our tradition was we would go to Culver’s and get a concrete mixer, the same one every time,” she said. “I would make [Alison] sneak in the concrete mixers in her jacket or purse into the movies. It was funny because I was the juvenile delinquent, and I was scared to sneak in an ice cream, and I made her do it.”

Curry said even though her mentee is not out of the facility yet, she has learned about the system and the youth in it. 

“It’s impacted me in putting things into perspective a little bit to even just be grateful that, you know, my parents didn’t die when I was young,” she said. “There [are] certain times where we all have to sit and remind ourselves of our privileges.”

The program is starting its eighth year, and Hobbs said the program has had 200 students and has grown to include four more colleges like the University of Nebraska at Kearney and Doane University. She said she has seen a lasting impact on the youth who have been through the program. 

“We’re starting to see youth come back like Nedhal,” she said. “Instead of kids that ended up back in the system, they’re really in the forefront of leading the system and trying to make reforms to the system.”

Al-kazahy said the consistency Brokke gave was the help she needed while in the system. 

“We’re like those best friends that, even though we never see each other every day or talk every day, our bond is stronger than ever,” she said. “It’s just nice to know.”