One of histories most sporadic bloggers is back again to deliver a brief insight into the state of New Joisey.

He is currently residing smack bang in the middle of a very large pine forest. There is an assortment of animals and insects that either run/fly away from him, or try to form a special bond with him climbing under his skin and biting him. He has pulled ticks from all over his body and has worn his nails down scratching the chigger(small spiders) bites round his ankles.

Before arriving one of his concerns was that he would be surrounded by fast food outlets and High Fructose corn syrup. This has been a partial truth but the state also offers a huge assortment of farm shops and markets to visit, hence the nickname “The garden state”. He can quite honestly say that he never believed corn on the cob could taste this good.

In the search for quality food sources, he has also come across a number of vineyards and local micro breweries. The flashing neon McDonalds signs have almost been eradicated from memory.

He has met a large contingent of the local population and invites have been made to go hunting,attend Pow Wow’s, learn the basics of cranberry/blueberry farming and throw horse shoes at a pole in the ground (a local game). He would like it to be noted that people from the outside world would often refer to these characters as red-necks. It has now been explained to him that red-necks are the ones living deep inside the forest far from even a water or electricty supply. He has been advised that if he comes across one of these little settlements whilst out on his bicycle, the best thing to do is keep his mouth closed and cycle in the opposite direction as quickly as possible. The people he meets in the bars, supermarkets and other public spaces call themselves piney’s owing to the fact that they live in the pine forest. Piney’s have been in the area since the times when the first settlers arrived in New Jersey (1600’s). They were the people who chose to integrate themselves into Native American communities as opposed to slaughtering them. It is still visible in some of their faces and they are fiercely proud of the fact.

He is not sure why he has chosen to refer to himself in the third person. Possibly because he is living in the land of the free and it is his right to do so.


What are the survival tactics of a young person growing up in gang infested neighbourhoods?

 After spending the last week in training sessions to educate me on the subject of gang culture, I am having to reflect back on what I’ve learnt whilst working with youths in the UK and then, how the added pressure of gang activity in the area’s where they grow up could further affect their development.

Over the last month many American citizens have confirmed to me verbally, the importance of image in their society. The young person born into an area where unemployment and crime rates are high, must seek survival alongside social standing. In the eyes of some youths, gang affiliation offers this social standing and quickly (the training pack suggested it is possible to join a gang within 2 minutes, throughout the majority of US states). The negative consequences of becoming involved in gang activity are incarceration, or in the extreme (but not uncommon) death. The positive is purely image based (you may receive protection for becoming a member but you and your family will then be at risk from other gangs and sometimes sects within your own gang). This would then seem to suggest, that the best tactic would be to remain unaffiliated. The young people with whom I have spoken have suggested this is possible, although they explain that with pressure from society,peer groups and the constant exposure to capitalism through the media, only the youth with sufficient support in their lives will have the strength to not to become involved.

The young people who become involved in gang activity at an early age, make up a percentage of the young people with whom I work. They are removed from their locality by government agencies, to give them a chance to develop in a different environment. Many of these young people have been labelled as having Oppositional Defiant Disorder. This is a disorder used to explain the behaviours of youths who can’t cope with figures of authority and who respond in an extreme fashion when boundries are set for them.

I’m currently trying to figure out whether or not this disorder really exists, or if it’s just another excuse for the pharmaceutical companies to sell drugs. Although there has been a lot of research done on ODD the findings do not seem to provide adequate evidence of whether or not this is a genuine disorder. It is possible that it is just a case of behaviour developed through poor upbringing and negative groups of attachment in the young persons life. Neurological studies have been completed but there is no certainty in what has been discovered.

I’ve been slightly suprised by the company for whom I’m working, as I expected the programme to be more foward thinking. Unfortunately this has not been the case. The young people with whom we work are described as having mental health issues, but we have been informed that the training we were given was outdated and was for youths with challenging behaviour (the previous client group). The lines cross for me here, as at the end of a nine hour shift I find their behaviour pretty challenging.

The original programme format which follows Native American traditions, is not followed as closely as in the past as the state have outlawed a number of the rituals due to health and safety issues. However one tool that is still used is the Feather sheet. The young people are rewarded feathers for good behaviour. The feathers can then be exchanged for goods picked by the young people. For negative behaviour (innapproriate language, physical aggression etc) they are given a zero. If they receive six zero’s in a week they have their home pass revoked and do not get to see their family/guardian at the weekend. I really appreciate this as a tool, as it offers instant consequences for varying behaviour. Another good example of a Native American practises used is the circle. Workers and youths stand in a circle to talk. Everyone is treated as equal and anything that is relative to the young people or the company can be discussed. This works but only when all staff have time to attend.

Due to staff shortage and a slightly incompetent administration team the moral on the programme is low. Our little house of United Nations is planning to inject a bit of life back into the programme. I get a feeling that the most valuable lessons I learn here will be from the youths.

Who needs adults anyway!

Where to start? Sorry if this is a bit long-winded but I haven’t written for a month. (Note to self – weekly updates)

 I’ve finally started to acclimatize to my new surroundings after a month of introductions to the people, places and customs in the good old US of A. My arrival here was dream like due to a decision not to think about trying to plan something which was out of my hands. I had become so settled with my daily routine and this was the first time I really felt I was heading into the unknown so I was going to enjoy it.

 The emergency exit seat on the flight was offered to me as soon as the steward at Heathrow had looked at me. I’m not sure if this was for my height or my good looks. Next to me sat the largest person I have ever met. He was African-American and could not have been much short of 7ft. I had heard of tales of the size people in the US but this was an immediate introduction. My height is not an issue for me, but having now been here for a while I feel that I fit into the “averagely tall category” as opposed to “out-right giant”.

The flight passed without incident and before I knew it we were landing at Newark airport. I was directed to the longest queue whilst everyone else filed through the exit’s without fuss. The passport officer went through my papers and questioned me about my trip to the country. He asked me whether I was a psychologist on three occasions (obviously no specific drop down box heading available) he finally let me through. Whether or not I am now operating here under the guise of a psychologist is not known to me, but I have been called a lot worse.

A young man from VQ waited at the gate for me. Initially I walked straight past him heading for the doorways where I was instructed to meet my lift. I did glance at my name being held up on card as I strolled past, but I was expecting the meeting place to be outside so I walked on. After a quick check I went back and saw that it was indeed my name and a Vince was the one holding the placard. He was a friendly character who had been ready to pick me up for the last week. I apologised for our inconvenient European volcano’s and we made our way to the car. I was hoping to catch sight of New York from the airport, as I had been advised that it was clearly visible. Unfortunately it was dark outside and the rain was coming down heavily. So much for escaping the UK climate.

After two hours of driving through a storm with lightning that lit up the outline of the New Jersey pine forest we arrived at my new home. I was briefly introduced to my new Costa Rican housemate and went off to hit the sack in preparation for the coming week.

The morning came and due to the time difference I was awake at six thirty am. I opened my blinds to see the house was surrounded by tree’s of many varieties. The rain had gone and it was bright sunshine. A short walk down the street led to a large lake. Although there were a few houses around the only sounds I could hear were natural. I was not sure whether or not this was something I would appreciate after eighteen months, but for the time being it was nice to be away from the urban soundscape that I became used to, whilst living on Trumpington Road.

The trip into work gave me a clearer picture of the area. Miles and miles of pine forest with weather boarded houses interspersed between the tree’s. During conversation with Ms D our driver, I was caught off guard by a typical yellow American school bus approaching. My first moment of realisation as to where I was. I then settled back into waking up.

On arrival at the camp we were greeted by a number of friendly faces. All keen to inform me that, “if I needed anything all I had to do was ask”.  It didn’t take long to feel comfortable in their presence and I got a good feeling that people were there for the young people, as much as they were in my previous company.

 I met the rest of the group who were on orientation/training with me. They were a mixed group of males and females from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. Some lived in the pine forest and others in the city of Philadelphia, some were travelled and some had spent the whole of their lives in Mid- New Jersey. It was nice to find out that we shared sentiments on youth development. The detail of the training was in the majority things that I had attended previous training sessions for, but the session that was particularly interested me was the anger replacement training. This required us to look at a set of fifty social skills young people would need to use in daily life. They are asked to choose a specific skill and model a situation were they had need to use it. If they had acted negatively and the outcome was bad for them or others involved, alternative options were explored and the new technique was then modelled. On a personal level I really appreciated this technique. It gives the young people the opportunity to explore behaviours amongst themselves without a large input from the support staff. It also adopts the well recognised approach of Cognitive therapy with regards to offering alternatives. 

The rest of the week passed quickly by, with the slightly concerning Physical Intervention training scheduled set for the following week. The question in my head. “Do I know my own strength and will I be able to control this when handling a vulnerable young person”???

A weekend visit to Atlantic city got me out of the house. For those of you who have not visited, it is like Las Vegas with a beach. Sky scrapers advertise Trumps name all over them and inside you find rows of slot machines as far as the eye can see. Most of them are occupied by old ladies and Asian people. I did have a $5 gamble but unfortunately lost and was not inclined to waste more money. Lunch was taken in a restaurant at the top of one of the casino’s over-looking the whole shore. It was eat as much as you can/like, which I did.

At the start of the following week I expressed my concerns over the physical intervention training to Miss Julie, our HR manger and the programme’s surrogate mother. She explained to me that the safety of the young people was of paramount importance to everyone and the techniques taught were used because of their recognised safety. She also explained that if you watched members of experienced staff it was common to see a restraint occurring where minimum exertion was used against the young person. This made me feel better  and consequently the training went smoothly and I now felt a step closer to being prepared to get out and work amongst the youths.

Up until this point the contact with the young people on site had been kept to a minimum. Our training had mainly been in a porter cabin away from the main site. Thursday saw us going to  training on the fabric of the programme. This was taking place in one of the building near by to the main yard. On the way over the young people were peering out of the windows in one of their homes. When they saw us approaching they put their middle fingers up at us. We chuckled amongst the group and waved and smiled back. The training was run by the site manager of the boys camp, Mr Will. He had recruited a young man from the camp to talk about the traditions of the Cro tribe. The Native Americans who had given VQ the permission and blessing to use their practises . The young man seemed extremely proud to be representing the programme and spoke in a clear and concise manner. He was not expecting the round of applause that followed and looked slightly flushed when he was commended for his excellent speech. This wrapped up the day in a postive manner.

Over the weekend our two new house mates arrived. Omar is from Jamaica and Jolanda is from Holland. The looks we get in the local supermarket are quizzical but some staff have started to become used to the “foreigners” and address us on a first name basis. Omar and I caught the bus to New York to go and stay with a friend of mine. I can truly say that this is the most impressive city I have ever visited. The new mayor Bloomberg is obviously making a real effort to turn the city into a place with a sense of community. The afternoon was spent in one of Brooklyn’s many city parks next to the Hudson river, watching the sun set over Manhattan. For the evening and night our friends took us through the city by car. We visited ground zero which still has a sombre air to it. This was followed by a visit to Time square and then drinks in a roof top bar in the shadow of the Empire state building. The following day we visited the Museum of Modern art and central park. I was left speechless by this city and I get the feeling I’m going to spend more time there.

After arriving back from a New York the previous evening, Monday morning was a bit of a struggle but after a few words with myself and a hearty breakfast things became a bit more manageable. With two weeks of training behind me I was finally being let loose with the kids.

I spent the first part of the day making my way round introducing myself. There were a variety of responses ranging from the cautious eyeballing through to friendly introductions and brief conversations about who I was and where I’d come from. There was a large contingent of young  African-Americans and Hispanics (particularly from Puerto Rico). During lunch more young people approached me to converse, I was introduced to about twenty new faces whose names I tried desperately hard to memorise. In comparison to young people from the UK the general approach was a lot more forward and I knew that I would have to set boundaries with the youths as soon as possible. 

The afternoon was spent watching young people in their on site schooling. This is provided by an outside educational  facility run by the state.  It was interesting to watch the different characters in each class and how each teacher worked with the differing levels of concentration and ability . The minimal level of IQ a youth needs to be accepted onto the programme is seventy. The idea is that they will leave the programme with a minimum of a high school diploma. I made a note of the youngsters who seemed to have trouble reading and made plans to offer support outside of the classroom. Whether or not this is accepted is another thing.

After school all the young people return to their living quarters called the Long Houses. There are three of these. They look like large poly tunnels covered in a thick green tarpaulin resembling a military housing block. Inside each is a maximum of ten young people when all beds are filled. There is a living area with a tv, dvd and games machine. It seems sensible for these places to be less luxurious so the young people do not become too attached to their temporary home. Each long house is manned by two staff; one of which will be myself when all my criminal checks are complete. After an hour inside, the young people are allowed out to the games field or computer room. I chose to watch the game of flag football which is American footballs answer to tag rugby. More surprises were in store for me when I witnessed some of the most athletic young people I have seen in quite a while. There looked to be some really promising young sportsmen in amongst the youths. I talked to the coach to ask if any of them had the capacity to make a career out of sport. He explained that due to the high-profile of sports people in the US, the level of competition was extremely high for college scholarships. Again this was something I felt that needed to be explored with a few of the young people.

I had to leave before the game finished as my shift had ended. I walked away feeling I’d learnt a lot but I was aware this was just the start.

Sorry to those of you that have finished reading this and felt bleary eyed from staring at the screen for so long. After having spent half a day writing it, I promise for all of our sakes the next entry will be considerably shorter. Any feedback would be more than welcome.

The waiting is almost over.

For my last week in the UK, the young people with whom I’ve worked, alcohol and towns coming under the header of  “London overspill” have given me the most fitting of leaving parties.

I’ve mopped up vomit whilst the young person responsible has comforted me about my departure; I’ve woken up feeling sympathetic to the plight of said young person and I’ve even had the pleasure of revisiting a place from my youth that would drive anyone to drink and its less savoury after effects (including the youth).

It is now definately time for me to get on that plane.