By Barbara Polan
Region – Leaving behind his career in investment banking in 1987, Northborough resident Scott Larson, along with his wife, Hanne, started a Christian faith-based program to help incarcerated youth during their detention and after their release.
They started the nonprofit organization both because Scott felt called by God to do so and because he saw the young people as possessing qualities not typically credited to them.
“I came to see that many of the youth in jail were leaders,” he said. “If someone is able to make money on the streets – especially leading a gang and making money while half the people are trying to kill you and the other half are trying to arrest you, you have serious leadership ability. It's just poorly channeled.”
The program is called Straight Ahead Ministries.
“[It] is an international nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing recidivism among juvenile offenders through various programs in youth lock-up centers and re-integration services after release,” Scott said.
To reach an incarcerated juvenile, the ministry runs programs in youth detention centers. Those programs include a variety of ways for the young people to participate.
“We start in juvenile facilities by running weekly Bible discussion groups, drug and alcohol recovery groups, leadership training events, tutoring and programs with speakers or music groups,” Scott said.
Since its inception, the organization has expanded.
“After we had run programs in detention centers for a few years, we saw the big need for follow-up and aftercare services when youth got out. In 1990, we opened a home in Westborough for up to seven of these young men to live with us upon their release,” he said.
The success rate of the program was remarkable.
“Of the youth who went through that [Westborough] home,” Scott said, “less than 6 percent were re-arrested, compared with the national average of nearly 60 percent.”
All youth detention centers are welcome to invite Straight Ahead into their facility and the group's services are available to all interested juveniles there. According to Scott, many of the young people in the centers are interested in participating.
“On average about 35 to 40 percent of the youth attend the programs. They are all voluntary,” he said.
Currently, the program reaches approximately 5,000 juveniles a year, ranging in age from 14 to 22, at more than 300 detention centers across the United States, including 50 in Massachusetts, and five countries. There are 24 staff members and 150 volunteers in New England alone.
Scott still leads the organization, working in administration, doing outreach to juvenile offenders and continuing to work directly with the youngsters.
One particular success story about the Straight Ahead Ministries that sticks with Scott is that of a kid who completely turned his life around and went into a profession helping other juveniles.
“Brian was a young man who we met when he was arrested at 14. After being locked up for two years, he moved into the aftercare home that we ran for up to seven boys.
“He lived with us for two years, then went on to Wheaton College in Illinois.
“From there he went to law school and today is the deputy director of New Jersey's Child Behavioral Health Services,” Scott said.
Looking to the future, Straight Ahead has recently opened a facility in Lynn, where they are working with 160 young adults being released from lock-up. Most had previously been active gang members.
“We have seen powerful things happen between formerly rival gang members
as they [have worked] together to feed the homeless, have come together to
launch a church and [have started] several small businesses to employ others coming
out; many [of them] have now joined our staff there. The re-arrest rate is 14.5 percent among those who are involved in our programs compared with 60 percent who were not. We are closing on a new ministry center to house all of our programs in Lynn on June 24,” he said.
In addition, there are plans to open a center in the Main South area of Worcester, where the group already works with 85 youths.
Scott also suggested ways for local residents to help Straight Ahead.
“We can use volunteers to run Bible discussion groups or drug and alcohol recovery groups in juvenile facilities, [and we can also use help from] those who want to mentor youth coming back to Worcester, and those who would be open to employing some of these youth.”
For more information about or to contact Straight Ahead Ministries, visit www.straightahead.org.