Orion Area Youth Assistance Provides Preventive Support to At-Risk Students

Orion Area Youth Assistance (OAYA) does what it can to ensure that students get the support and tools they need to cope with often challenging circumstances. Helping kids before they get into trouble, or helping them recover from a bout with the criminal justice system is all about having consistent, caring adults in their lives. It’s also about programming that keeps kids engaged while they learn and have fun, too. Kars4Kids was pleased to be able to lend a hand to OAYA by way of our small grants program.

We had a chat with Orion Area Youth Assistance Caseworker Amber Kish to learn more about this work:

Kars4Kids: Can you tell us something about your demographic? 

Amber Kish: We work with students and families who live within the Lake Orion Community School District boundaries. We work with students from 4 to 17 years old. Our students have many different family situations including various socio-economic statuses.

Students are referred for many different reasons from a variety of sources. Nearly 90% of our referrals are “prevention” referrals. These referrals are students who may be struggling academically or behaviorally or who are experiencing social/emotional challenges or a change in family situation.

As a prevention-based program, we like to see the majority of our students coming in for services before they have any interactions with the juvenile justice system. We know the earlier we can intervene and provide support to students and families, the sooner we can hopefully provide tools for them to manage whatever stressful events are occurring in their lives and reduce the behaviors that often accompany distress for youth. The more tools they have in their tool belts, the less likely students are to become involved in the criminal justice system or be victimized.

Approximately 10% of our students come to us from referrals from law enforcement agencies or our county prosecutor’s office. These are generally students with a first-time, misdemeanor offense. They are referred to us under what is considered a “diversion” referral. If students choose to participate in the program and they complete their individual program successfully, no charges will be brought for the misdemeanor offense in court. If the student chooses not to participate or does not complete successfully, then charges may be brought in official court. Our program presents an opportunity for students who have made a poor choice to correct course, offer reparations in some form to the community, and make better choices moving forward without juvenile adjudication.

Finally, approximately 1 % of our students have been adjudicated and are now part of what is called a “re-entry” program. In these cases, students have been adjudicated through the juvenile court for an offense. A team of professionals, including our local caseworker, work with the students and their families from the day the students begin their residential program, getting services in place and preparing for the students to re-enter their communities. Regardless of how our students and families come to us or for what reason, we believe that helping to strengthen connections between the child and family and between the family and our community can have powerful and positive outcomes. 

Kars4Kids: Parents pay a one-time processing fee of $25 for the counseling services you provide. Is that largely a symbolic fee? What is the importance of the symbolic fee? 

Amber Kish: The $25 fee serves to cover the cost of processing our files and is paid directly to the 6th Circuit of Oakland County – Family Division. Symbolically, it does represent a commitment to participate in services, however if this fee is a barrier to a family participating in services, it can be reduced or waived. We want to ensure that finances are never a barrier to any family receiving services.

Kars4Kids: Can you tell us about the various summer camps you run? Are these camps free of charge? How many children attend these camps? 

Amber Kish: In the past, OAYA has run its own early childhood summer camp for pre-K students. Families who demonstrated financial need were provided scholarships for anywhere from 90% up to 100% of the cost of the camp. Approximately 25 students attended the early childhood summer camps.

Now we primarily provide scholarships for camps run by local agencies such as Lake Orion Community Schools Enrichment Services, Orion Township Parks and Rec, and other local programs. Most children attend day camps; however, we do have partnerships with a handful of local overnight camp programs and offer a limited number of overnight camp scholarships as well.

OAYA youth with mentor

Both day and overnight scholarships generally pay for 90% of the cost of one week of camp for our students with the family covering the remaining 10%. Again, we never want finances to be a barrier to participation so if a family cannot afford the 10%, arrangements are made to ensure this cost does not prevent a child from being able to attend summer camp. Additionally, our board of directors recognizes that attending camp often comes with additional costs for families beyond the enrollment fees. In these situations, the Board has authorized assistance, providing items needed to attend camp where OAYA finances allow. Approximately 50-75 students take advantage of our camp scholarship program in an average year, engaging in opportunities to step outside their comfort zones; strengthen social skills, learn problem-solving skills and how to work with others; and make new friends and memories. 

Kars4Kids: What is an enrichment scholarship? How many scholarships do you provide in an average year? 

Amber Kish: OAYA understands enrichment activities are important for all students. Enrichment scholarships are used to supplement the cost of activities for students with financial need throughout the year. These are activities meant to nurture learning and strengthen or build new skills. We have provided scholarships for activities from art/music lessons, swimming lessons, athletic classes/teams, college prep tours, and Lego and robotics classes as well as specialized therapeutic programs and driver education courses in certain situations. The number of scholarships provided varies depending on our budget for the year, however an average of 10-15 students receive enrichment scholarships each year. 

Kars4Kids: You offer family education programs. Can you tell us about some of the events and programs you’ve run for families? 

Amber Kish: Each year, OAYA’s Board of Directors looks at trends, available area programming, and needs to determine programs they will offer. Some of the programs we offer on a yearly basis (Covid-restrictions allowing) are:

  • Family Fun Fest with carnival games, crafts, petting zoo, bounce houses, photo booths, public safety personnel/vehicles, and snacks/food. This event is completely free, aimed at encouraging families and children to put the electronics away and engage in fun together. 
  • Youth Recognition – (see more below.)
  • Child Abuse Prevention Month – we partner with Care House of Oakland County, our local specialist organization on child abuse and prevention, to provide body safety presentations to students in early childhood programs as well as facilitating “pinwheel gardens” throughout the community to raise awareness of child abuse and the need for early and frequent prevention-based programming 
  • Back-to-School supplies distribution – we partner with Operation Homefront and our local Dollar Tree stores who collect school supply donations and provide them to us for distribution to local military families and families with financial need
  • Holiday Mart – we again partner with Operation Homefront and our local Dollar Tree stores who collect donated items prior to the December holidays. We have created a Holiday Mart where our local Head Start students are paired up with student volunteers from our local Alternative High School to shop together for gifts for their family members. Children are allowed to select one toy for themselves and one gift for each member of their immediate families. Volunteers then help the children to wrap their gifts while they have cocoa and visit with their high school volunteer and/or Mrs. Claus if they would like.
  • Just the Facts Math Club – (see below.)

Other programs that we have offered include: Parent support group to address stressors of parenting and how to navigate the pandemic; Human Trafficking 101 for education and awareness; Dating Violence for Teens for teens and parents; educational programming on vaping and alcohol abuse; and programming on diversity, equity, and inclusion with local adult and student panelists. 

Kars4Kids: How many volunteers and children are in your Mentors Plus program? Can you give us an overview of this program? Do the kids you serve ever come back to volunteer with OAYA? 

Amber Kish: Due to Covid-restrictions, we are currently down to three adult-student matches, but are looking to increase these partnerships as restrictions are removed. With the Mentors Plus program, adults in our community commit to a minimum of one year volunteering to meet with a young person for at least an hour or two a week. Many of our matches meet more often. Volunteers are vetted at the county level through Oakland County Circuit Court and are provided with training prior to being matched with a child.

This program allows students to meet one-on-one with a caring adult to develop important supportive relationships and engage in fun activities together. Matches meet individually and the program provides free tickets and other group activities for the mentor/mentee matches to come together as a group from time to time, to connect and celebrate their developing relationships. While matches commit to one year, many of our matches continue on for many years beyond the one year commitment. I have not been around long enough yet to see a mentee come back as a mentor, but I could certainly see this happening as both our mentees and our mentors report gaining much from the program! 

Kars4Kids: OAYA has a math club! These must be some pretty special youngsters. Can you tell us about the kids and the program? 

Amber Kish: We love our Just the Facts Math Club for SO many reasons! It is a partnership between OAYA, Lake Orion United Methodist Church, Blanche Sims Elementary School, and volunteers from Lake Orion High School’s National Math Honor Society. Our LOHS National Math Honor Society students work with four adult volunteers (mainly retired teachers) to put together fun math games and activities that focus on improving knowledge of “math facts.”

Studies show that students who are not at grade level with math facts by the end of third grade will continue to struggle with math throughout their educational careers, often falling behind. Third grade students from Blanche Sims Elementary meet with our student and adult volunteers once a week, afterschool, on site. They have a healthy snack and then dive in to fun games and activities that encourage a love of math and learning as well as strengthening skills, helping them to meet their educational goals. 

Kars4Kids: You have a Youth Recognition Awards Ceremony where outstanding youth can win your Community Service Award. Can you tell us about some of the past awardees and their achievements?

Amber Kish: OAYA is an organization that relies on volunteers to provide programming, so we feel it is important to continue to nurture a love for giving back to our community. So many students are doing so many incredible things, and we look forward to honoring some of these students every year! Students have been recognized for going above and beyond, with some students being recognized for over 400 hours of community service!

Students have been recognized for participating in clean-ups and repair programs to help seniors and other local residents in need; mission work both in and out of our local area; work at our community library and with other local non-profit organizations; creating events and drives to collect supplies for frontline workers during the pandemic; drives to collect supplies for local animal shelters/rescue organizations; and volunteering time with seniors – for instance playing cards, and reading to the visually impaired, just to name a few. It is amazing all the great things our students are doing, some starting their volunteer work at very young ages. We have recognized students from elementary, middle school, and high school levels and continue to be inspired by their desire to help others! 

Kars4Kids: How did COVID-19 affect your operations? 

Amber Kish: The Covid-19 Pandemic has created several challenges for our program. Unfortunately, due to restrictions, we have had to cancel most programming as well as fundraising events. We rely on fundraising and donations from area businesses and individuals to fund programming. Due to the impact the pandemic has had on our local economy, it has made it difficult and often impossible for area businesses and individuals to be able to provide donations for the past two years, impacting the funds we have available to help area students and families. We are so very thankful for this Kars4Kids grant which will help us to offset some of this decline due to Covid. 

Additionally, the way we deliver services has been impacted. All counseling and casework services have been provided remotely. We are thankful for the technology to allow us to continue providing services remotely. We also recognize the challenges many families have with being able to afford internet connectivity as well as understanding the technology needed to be able to connect. We have been fortunate that when school is in session, each student is provided a device which helps to increase the number of families that are able to access these remote services; however, we recognize this solution does not work for everyone and has presented a barrier to receiving services for some.

Additionally, while some of our teen clients and clients with social anxiety report a level of comfort with the remote services, it is more difficult for some of our clients, especially our youngest clients, to engage in services remotely. We have done our best to make services as interactive as possible despite their remote nature. We were able to purchase some supplies at the beginning of the pandemic to drop on the porches of some of our youngest clients. Using a combination of technology and these supplies has allowed us to create more interactive experiences for our youngsters who learn best through play and interaction vs verbal communication.

In addition, it has been difficult for our clients to find camps and enrichment activities. Many camps did not run in 2020 and many ran at limited capacities in 2021. Extra-curricular and enrichment activities faced similar challenges. In order to counter some of those trends, we created a “Summer Camp in a Box” program with fun activities, materials, and directions for families to do together to mimic some of the fun activities students do at camp. Similarly, we expanded our enrichment scholarships and provided supplies to some students so that they could participate in on-line art classes as an alternative enrichment activity. We remain hopeful that circumstances will allow us to be face to face with our clients and able to conduct fundraising and educational as well as enrichment activities for families again soon!

Kars4Kids: What’s next for Orion Area Youth Assistance? 

Amber Kish: We recognize the pandemic has increased an already growing level of anxiety for many of our students and families. Additionally, there is a significant amount of grief and loss that has occurred over the past two years, from lost lives to lost expectations, a loss of connection and normality, lost experiences, and a loss of a sense of safety for many. We are ready to provide support to our families as they navigate these and other challenges. We are looking forward to reviving our parent support group; continuing to address diversity, equity, and inclusivity issues; and resuming educational programming for students and parents in areas of need and interest. We are eager to return to our face to face services when safe and yet are thankful to have the technology to continue remote services for those who are in need as sometimes transportation or other barriers make it challenging to come into the office to receive services or attend events.

While the pandemic has made it imperative for us to pivot (and pivot and pivot again!), we recognize that much of what we have learned can help us to expand our services and be more inclusive moving forward, and for that, we are thankful!

We are also excited to use the money from the Kars4Kids grant to start a new program that will be focused on building strong self-esteem and relationships in girls before they start middle school. We are still in the development stages, but we’re using the grant money provided to purchase curriculum to teach adult mentors who will run group sessions with 5th grade girls to teach critical skills that will help the girls navigate middle and high school. We want to help them avoid the pitfalls we’ve witnessed through the years such as dating violence; pressure to send inappropriate photographs; and pressure to drink, vape, use illegal substances, or act out sexually. OAYA is extremely grateful for the funding from Kars4Kids to make this program possible. We are in the process of selecting and training mentors now as well as creating selection criteria for which girls to serve in the pilot program. We plan to launch the program once the pandemic restrictions in our schools are lifted.

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