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Supportive Approaches for Youth Coping with Juvenile Justice and Substance Misuse

MAY 8, 2020
BY: MORGAN ZEPP, NMRC TEAM
An Interview with Alicia Espinoza, Project Hero Coordinator at Escondido Education COMPACT

Project Hero

In many communities throughout the country, there is a need for dedicated support and prevention strategies for youth who misuse substances. In response to this need, innovative programs have been organized, centered around helping youth to cope with the impact that substances have on themselves and their peers.

In Escondido, California, Alicia Espinoza coordinates a mentoring program funded by OJJDP that serves justice-involved youth and that places a significant emphasis on not only supporting youth to reduce recidivism, but also to overcome substance misuse. The program, called Project Hero, works closely with several groups of important stakeholders, including law enforcement.

What is the mission of Project Hero?

The central mission of the program is simple—providing teens and young adults who had previously gotten into trouble with the law with strong mentorship in order to keep them out of the system and on the right path moving forward. The youth are referred to the program entirely by law enforcement, and in the past few years, there has been a 300% increase in the number of youth being referred to their Diversion program for marijuana-related issues. In order to effectively address the growing problem of marijuana use, Project Hero encourages maximum openness between mentor and mentee. For instance, the mentee should always be aware that they can reach out to their mentor in order to receive support if they are being pressured by peers to use drugs. Mentors can provide their insight on the best ways to say no while saving face within social groups, which tends to be a common problem for youth; they sometimes feel compelled to use drugs under those social pressures, according to Espinoza. 

How are mentors trained to support this population of youth?

Project Hero

Mentors receive extensive training to build the necessary skills to navigate tough conversations. They are encouraged to ask their mentees what influences them to use drugs, and emphasize ways to remove oneself from those environments and enter environments that promote safety and health. This mentor approach, combined with Escondido Education COMPACT’s other projects and partnerships, provides a clear path for youth to change their behavior for the better. Escondido Education COMPACT offers a cannabis abuse program (CAP) and partners with Mental Health Systems for counseling/therapy services, further expanding the resources that youth within Project Hero can access.

How does Project Hero approach substance use and misuse?

The approach that Project Hero takes to substance misuse is one of intervention and prevention. The supportive approach taken by the project helps to combat the use of cannabis as well as the rising use of meth among youth, and this approach may also be useful in the unfortunate potential circumstance of opioids becoming more popular in Escondido, just as they are in many other areas. Because law enforcement is actively involved in Project Hero and creates relationships with youth who have entered the criminal justice system, a deeper trust has been instilled between traditionally disparate groups, creating mutual understanding and a stronger community.

Project Hero Successes

Project Hero’s success can be seen in everyday examples. Espinoza recalls one story in which a teenage boy struggled with ADHD and marijuana misuse, and was typically verbally aggressive at home and at school. Through Project Hero, he has been mentored by a police officer who has spent time with him in key ways, including by helping him learn how to drive. Espinoza believes that the relationship with his mentor has helped this mentee to be calmer and more controlled, and he is now doing much better.

Espinoza’s work as Project Coordinator has helped her to realize how strong an individual mentor’s impact can be. “Mentorship is not about having all the answers, but it is about being a consistent and positive person,” she says. It is deeply encouraging to see the results of Project Hero in its impact on justice-involved youth who struggle with substances, and Espinoza feels that the program can expand further in the future. Project Hero helps to humanize many groups of people, including the teens who have been in the juvenile justice system as well as the officers who police the local community. Project Hero shows that substance misuse in the youth population can be tackled with a community-based mentoring approach that provides a full scope of resources and emotional support to help youth to find solutions for better health and happiness.


For more information about Escondido Education COMPACT and Project Hero, please visit https://www.educationcompact.org.

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