Youth and community development student prepares juveniles for success after detention

Contact: Chris Hybels

BERRIEN CENTER, Mich.—Western Michigan University's Donna Soko  is helping prepare juveniles for life after their release from the Berrien County Juvenile Center (BCJC). A student in WMU's youth and community development program, she is working at BCJC as a youth specialist intern and is a part of the rehabilitation process that prepares youth to return to their communities.

During the day, she spends time with youth and supports the full-time staff. One of her main responsibilities is making sure youth at the center are maintaining their schedules. Students moving between classrooms, activity areas, therapy sessions, visitation and meeting rooms. With all of this movement, Soko is making sure they are doing what they're supposed to do.  

"I'm going to be the one to direct them on what they need to do, what they need to not do and what they need to focus on," says Soko.

Soko is also involved with the juvenile center's focus program, where she teaches students about risk management and basic social skills. Part of the focus program is youth sharing their personal experiences so they can learn from one another. She also believes some of youth are inspired by her journey to WMU.

"I've had them ask me, so you're in college and you come here?" says Soko. "Then having them have that mindset of like, we have somebody that's younger and they're coming here to help. So in a way, being a role model has been something that I feel like I can give in that part."

Youth at BCJS spend minimal time in their cells, according to Soko, which are only used for sleeping. The majority of the day is spent in classrooms, the gymnasium, common areas or outside. This style of rehabilitation is encouraged by staff, including BCJC therapists, as a way for youth to share more time together to communicate and learn.

"They have all the fun things that we're able to do outside BCJC. The only difference is that youth are in a certain place where it is not home," says Soko. "But they're still able to communicate with their families, and they're able to get phone calls every day." 

After graduation, Soko plans to continue working in the juvenile system. To prepare for future positions, she is earning a criminal justice minor at WMU. She believes the combination of her major and minor will her help support more youth as they rehabilitate and prepare to re-enter their communities.

"She's definitely unique and is great," says Kyle Sheffield, supervisor at BCJC. "She's learning how to work with the youth directly and teaching them how to make good decisions. Also having them think about their behavior and making good decisions in the future so they don't come back to us."  

About youth and community development at wmu

The family science and human development: youth and community development concentration prepares change agents to transform communities through an intentional investment in youth via interdisciplinary coursework and community-based experiences. It is based on theoretical perspectives in childhood, adolescent and family development, best pedagogical practices and grounded in an ethic of family engagement and social action. For more information about the concentration, visit the program overview page.

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