To start the role-playing exercise called the Minefield, George Johnson puts strips of tape on the floor of a room in the REACH House, an unassuming rowhouse in Southeast Washington that is a temporary home for boys just released from the city’s juvenile jail.
A blindfolded youngster stands on one side of the tape. Arranged on the other side are counselors and the other residents, cast as the conflicting influences he encounters every day: teachers wondering why he’s not in school, corner boys eager to enlist him in selling drugs, peers urging him to do the right thing, police officers ready to bring him in when he strays — and his parents, their voices often lost in the clamor.
The aim is for the youngster to sort through the cacophony and move toward the voice that makes the most sense.
“All these people are talking at the same time,” said George Johnson, program director at REACH, which stands for Residential Empowerment Adolescent Community Home. “Sometimes when it first starts, kids just freeze. They don’t know where to go.”
If they did, they probably wouldn’t be at REACH, which is a program of Sasha Bruce Youthwork, a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand.
There is space at REACH for eight boys, who range in age from 12 to 18.
“We pretty much stay at capacity always,” George said.
The residents have come from the Youth Services Center operated by the District’s Department of Youth and Rehabilitation Services. REACH is a pretrial program for youngsters accused of such crimes as truancy, theft and simple assault. They’re happy to be out of the YSC, George said, but aren’t ready to return home.
And so REACH serves as a temporary home, with both the support and the responsibilities that entails.
“You have to do your chores: make your bed, take the trash out, hang your clothes up, sweep and mop the floor,” George said.
Residents and staff eat breakfast together, then most of the boys are taken to their neighborhood schools. Some have been out of school due to homelessness. REACH gets them re-enrolled.
After school, many go to a program known as BARJ — Balanced and Restorative Justice — where they meet with probation officers and counselors. They eat dinner at BARJ, but when they return in the evening to REACH, most of them have a second dinner, George said, laughing. These are growing boys.
Cellphones aren’t allowed, so the teens watch TV in the common room or play board games. (George said he’s surprised at how many know how to play chess.) Cards are popular, too, especially a game called tunk. The residents have to be up in their rooms by 9 p.m., 10 p.m. on weekends.
The average length of a stay is a month, though many residents stay two to three times as long. The days reveal a rhythm. Group sessions cover such topics as conflict resolution and money management. On Wednesdays, the boys are taken to Judiciary Square to meet with probation officers and provide urine samples. If they’ve been following the REACH rules, the boys can get a pass to visit their families on the weekend.
They get an allowance, too, about $10 to $15 a week. “One youngster, he was trying to be the man of the house,” George said. “His family was living in a shelter. He felt the need to help. The little bit of money I gave him, he was most appreciative of.”
He gave it to his younger siblings, who couldn’t count on their parents for support.
George has worked for Sasha Bruce Youthwork for 30 years, much of that time running Bruce House, the Sasha Bruce emergency shelter on Maryland Avenue NE for homeless teens. He’s seen the risks change over the years. Synthetic marijuana is the latest problem. “It’s really destroying young people,” he said.
Parents and guardians are encouraged to visit REACH. George wishes more would.
“Sometimes the parents are just so frustrated,” he said. “They say: ‘This is my son’s issue. He has to deal with it.’ We try to allow the parent to vent, get that out, but we say: ‘Look, you’re really needed here. Your son needs your support. You need to come in and build your relationship.’ ”
George knows that some people think young offenders have it too easy. “There are situations where you have to lock up kids because of the crime that they committed,” he said. “I’m not totally against that.”
But it’s often better, George said, to intervene with a program such as REACH.
“You want to get to the bottom of the issue, as opposed to throwing them in lockup and throwing away the key without any type of intervention,” he said.
When REACH works, it’s like handing each teenager his own mine detector and teaching him to use it.
REACH is just one of the programs for at-risk young people run by Sasha Bruce Youthwork. You can support this work by making a tax-deductible donation through The Washington Post Helping Hand. Visit posthelpinghand.com. To donate by mail, make a check payable to “Sasha Bruce Youthwork” and mail it to: Sasha Bruce Youthwork, 741 Eighth St. SE, Washington, D.C. 20003. Attention: James Beck.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.