Young Men Program, Chelsea
At Roca, we know the path to stability and independence is never a straight line. The fact that Henry today works a stable job and has logged 1,000+ hours of programming at Roca is nothing short of extraordinary. His story is one of hard work and resilience, but a lot has threatened to disrupt his progress along the way.
“I was all over the place” is how Henry describes himself when he first came to Roca. At 14, he dropped out of high school and was in and out of DYS custody: “I had distanced myself from my friends and was on the streets, hustling, getting in trouble, stealing cars”. In 2017, Henry’s DYS worker, a former Roca staff member, referred him to Roca.
He met his youth worker, started taking classes in the building in reading, math, and history, and joined a Roca work crew. He sat in a circle and learned about CBT. For the first time, he started to realize how often he felt “numb”, unable to label how he was feeling and trapped in his own skin. As Henry puts it, CBT helped him to start “thinking about what my body was actually doing in a situation and learn to stay still and relax”. With the support of his youth worker and Roca educators, Henry started to learn and practice the seven core skills of CBT. One of those skills, acting on values instead of emotions, required early introspection. Henry’s youth worker helped him to identify a set of specific values — “family, work, and freedom” — that could ground him and guide his actions.
After a couple months, Henry hit his first road block. He stopped showing up consistently for work and was terminated from the crew. This type of early setback was no surprise to Roca, and in fact is something the transitional employment program is prepared to manage by design. Henry’s crew supervisor and youth worker stepped in to support him through a rapid re-hire process so that Henry could apply to rejoin the crew, show up, and stay on track
Over the next year, Henry kept showing up. Four days a week, he worked from 7am-2pm on the Roca crew learning hard skills through property maintenance, landscaping, and painting projects. Equally importantly, his hours on crew gave him a chance to put his CBT skills into practice. Practicing punctuality, teamwork, and conflict management all require an ability to make the link between what we think, feel, and do. After work, he started participating in carpentry and culinary training sessions, got his OSHA-10 and forklift certifications, and took classes on everything from financial literacy to customer service — all while working towards 60 consecutive days of work.
On the surface, it seemed like Henry was making consistent progress; in reality, his journey was slowly starting to veer off course. As he puts it, “life started to hit differently when I turned 18”. His engagement level started to drop; he spent 130 hours in Roca programming in November 2017, but only 19 by the following April. Around this time, he was involved in a car chase that resulted in several days in DYS custody and a serious head injury that was left undiagnosed. Following the accident, he frequently had flashbacks that made it “tough to be in the present”. He was prescribed medication to manage his pain but didn’t want to take it. Drinking and smoking didn’t help, either. The only relief he found was in music: “sometimes I don’t have the right vocabulary in my head, but when you hear the right words, it can describe the pain”.
As Henry distanced himself from Roca, his mental state got progressively worse: “it got to a point where my emotions were heightened. I was pissed off, angry, aggressive –I just felt cold”. As he describes it, he was “coming to work crazy, losing it, starting fights a couple times”. As his behavior became more erratic, Roca staff had to intervene to limit his building access and his ability to participate on the work crew.
Then, in August 2018, Henry caught an aggravated assault charge that landed him back in police custody. He spent two months in Bridgewater State Hospital and was then transferred to Shattuck Hospital in Jamaica Plains. After two months at Shattuck, Henry ran away and returned to Chelsea to his mother and brother.
For a lot of people in Henry’s position, this series of events could have shut the door to a safe, stable, hopeful future. But even then, Roca did not give up. Knowing that relapse is an important part of any behavior change journey, staff reached out to Henry to encourage him to turn himself in, which he did just before New Year’s. As he puts it, “I wanted to start over again. I went back to the streets after I ran away, I had my fun…then I was like, you know what, nothing’s changed. Why am I going to keep running away? I’m going to keep my head above water, come out, and try to do better than before”. With Roca’s help, he negotiated an intensive outpatient (IOP) regimen with the court that included a gradual reentry into Roca programming, culminating in his re-hire to the TEP crew in May.
Since May, Henry has completed 324 hours of work. His performance isn’t perfect replica rolex and he has gotten two write-ups, which he chalks up to “little mistakes”. For Henry, work provides an important outlet: “when there’s issues on the streets, the only thing that keeps me out of it is working…if I’m frustrated, I go twice as hard when I’m working. Instead of focusing on the streets, I push myself on working hard”.
Henry’s persistence hasn’t gone unnoticed. A few weeks ago, he successfully applied to become a team lead on the work crew. With his pay raise comes an expectation that he will take on greater responsibility to support the crew supervisor and manage his peers. To Henry, this means leading by example: “I come to work and show people that I’m motivated, I’m not lazy. I put myself out there”.
Henry isn’t sure exactly what the future holds. At times, a year of freedom seems like a tough thing to wrap his head around. He does know one thing for sure: “I’m not trying to lose myself — it’s not worth it. If I really wanted to, I could [be back in the streets], but I know my decision is to stay here because I don’t want to get in trouble and be locked up. I’ve made too much progress — I can’t go back now”.
Henry got his driver’s permit a few weeks ago and is currently scheduling his license test. He is working towards 60 consecutive days on the work crew so he can get a job outside of Roca and thinks he may ultimately want to become a painter in the union. He also wants to prioritize giving his younger brother a different teenage experience than his own: “I want him to become better than me. I want him to not go down the same path I did growing up. Instead of going in the streets by myself, learning by myself, I’d rather him have company with somebody he knows who he can trust, who can be by his side at all times”.
“If I really wanted to, I could [be back in the streets], but I know my decision is to stay here because I don’t want to get in trouble and be locked up. I’ve made too much progress--I can’t go back now.”