The first column I ever wrote was published in the May 1996 issue of The Jewish Observer. My topic, underachieving children and the increased rate of dropouts of boys and girls from our community, was not discussed in polite company at that time.
When I submitted the 4,500-word essay, I honestly had no idea of the impact it would have and the firestorm it would ignite. But I soon discovered the incredible power of the written word. In the first month after the column was published, my wife and I received more than 300 phone calls at home from Jewish parents around the world. Some complimented or critiqued what I had written, but the vast majority of them were just begging for relief from the searing agony they and their at-risk children were experiencing. Clearly a raw nerve had been touched. Soon, I was invited to address the national conventions of both Torah Umesorah and Agudath Israel on the issue of teens at risk. Over the following months, I wrote several follow-up columns on this topic – all of which can now be found on my website.
In September 1997, I requested a meeting with Rabbi Moshe Sherer, the late, dynamic president of Agudath Israel, to explore the possibility of harnessing the resources of Agudah to address this issue. At that time, he was well past retirement age, and was silently battling the ravages of the illness that would shortly take his life. It would have been well within his right to take an extended leave of absence and disconnect his phone. But his dedication to klal Yisrael did not permit him to do so. He took the time to meet with me and took an active role in the founding and growth of Project Y.E.S. over the following months – almost until the week of his petirah.
Project Y.E.S. is special because it evolves with the changing needs of our children. While one-on-one mentoring was an adequate response toward prevention of the at-risk phenomena, much more is needed today.
In 1996, with the encouragement of our gedolim, we began offering jobs to out-of-school teens. Unfortunately, we soon discovered that many of the children simply did not have the skills to hold down a job. So we changed our model to incorporate career counseling and aptitude testing, along with the job placement. In 1999 we developed a professional, all-volunteer teen-mentoring program, utilizing the best practices of several agencies with successful mentoring programs – among them Big Brother/Big Sister of NYC. This has quite literally changed the lives of hundreds of children in our communities, and, according to our teen mentors, improved their own parenting skills as well. The key component of this program is the training and ongoing supervision that our volunteers receive from our experienced mental health professionals.
Over time, we soon came to realize that the parents of at-risk children have as great a need for a “lifeline” as their children. In 2002, using the experience we had gained in the mentoring program, we developed our parent/mentoring program, which provides highly trained volunteers to be one-on-two coaches to parents for a 12-week period. This results in the improvement of the parent/child relationships in hundreds of homes.
In 2005, responding to many requests from parents and educators across North America, we introduced our KESHER School Program. This program provides an on-site clinician to each enrolled school, working exclusively with the teachers and administration – one-on-one – to effectively manage challenged students within the mainstream classroom. In a relatively short time, our KESHER program has added an entirely new dimension to the children’s school experience in more than 25 schools in four states – having already served almost 10,000 children.
We are now exploring diverse and creative uses of the Internet to all who turn to us for help. We have already created:
*An online referral database of all Orthodox private therapists, services and agencies that offer assistance to parents of at-risk teens: The goal is to improve the children’s quality of life and educational success.
*An online registry of all mainstream and alternative yeshiva schools in the U.S. and Israel: You can learn the particulars about any school and share your comments and personal experiences with that school in order to help others in the future.
Additionally, we are now expanding our Internet “People Helping People” program of dynamic parent forums. This allows our participants to pose parenting questions to professionals and lay experts, who bring a broad range of life experiences to our communal discussion.
We are also actively exploring the development of a new “kid-friendly” teen site, where Jewish teens can safely and confidentially interact with volunteers and professionals. Our goal here is for the teens to be provided with sound guidance when seeking our help.
Please take the time now to reserve your seats for Project Y.E.S.’s gala concert – taking place on Sunday, October26 at The Jazz at Lincoln Center. Our first major fundraising event, featuring Avraham Fried and Chazzan Yitzchak Helfgot, will help us continue our lifesaving work. For more information, please visit my website, www.rabbihorowitz.com, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 718-758-3131 x106.
Rabbi Yakov Horowitz