Change Agents, City Transformation, Education, Get Involved, Giving Back, neighborhood growth, Neighborhoods, Philanthropy, youth programs

Life Directions teaches at-risk Detroit kids to make the right choices in life

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When Alejandro came to Western International High School from middle school he ate his lunch in the bathroom. He was scared and felt he didn’t fit in.

An older student, Tomás, changed that. He found him in the bathroom and invited him to sit with him in the cafeteria and Alejandro was on the way to fitting in … and staying in school.

That’s not an unusual occurrence at Western. You see, Tomás was Alejandro’s mentor before he came to the high school. His job was to make the middle schooler feel comfortable when he got to Western.

Like many at-risk kids, it was difficult for Alejandro, who came from a family struggling with poverty. At one point he decided not to attend the school’s annual tribute dinner. When asked by his teacher why he wasn’t going he said he didn’t have the right shoes. The teacher bought him the shoes.

Today Alejandro is giving back and is part of a missionary group working in the U.S.

Life Directions is responsible for much of his success as well as the success of other students at Western. The organization is committed to helping at-risk young adults make the right choices in life.

It’s a mission Rev. John Phelps and Sister Rosalie Esquerra have devoted nearly half a century to accomplishing.

Founded 43 years ago by the then recently-ordained priest, the sister, and like-mined Alex and Judith MacDonald, who are now deceased, decided to do something about the cause of violence that earned Detroit its Murder Capital moniker. At that time Father John was being called over and over again to conduct funeral services for young people throughout the city, including many in Southwest Detroit. He’d had enough.

Life Directions was created to teach at-risk young people to peacefully solve their problems and make better life decisions.

“Peace building is our language,” says Phelps, president and CEO of the organization.

Rev. John Phelps

Rev. John Phelps

“Life Directions develops peers who are rooted in the right values,” he adds. “They are learning common sense that enables them to inspire their peers to turn obstacles in opportunity and take responsibility for their future.”

He cites an example.

A young man has a brother 10 years younger and a mom who speaks only Spanish. There is no dad in the house. This young man meets a person who becomes his mentor and teaches him positive life values. He then gives back and mentors a young man who lives close by and wants to drop out of school and join a gang. He takes that young man under his wing and inspires him to stay in school and make it work for him.

“He has taken his obstacle and turned it into opportunity,” says Phelps. “It’s all about social and emotional learning, resiliency, perseverance – sticking to it. Life Directions is basically the mother you didn’t have.”

Just like a mom, Life Directions works hard to get young people to stay in school, turn away from crime and instead “move up the ladder.” The goal is to help them create their own positive opportunities, plan for their future and make a permanent commitment to strong family life.

About 25 percent of the students at Western participate in the program. Those who join are first recommended by their teachers and then must agree to participate in a 12-session process that helps them grow socially and emotionally and become self-motivated. Often that leads to them getting involved in their community as well as other Life Directions programs.


Early on, the group recognized grandparents were too often filling the parental roles and at-risk young people did not respect or listen to them. They realized they needed positive relationships with their elders and the peer-to-peer programs were born. Life Directions now has three peer-to-peer programs that work together to instill positive values and outcomes in students, as well as neighborhoods.

The Peer Motivation Program brings achieving high school students together with at-risk students. Together they explore the issues they confront, see ways to be responsible for their future, discuss common challenges and consider consequences to actions. The program operates 40 percent in the school and 60 percent in their neighborhood, where students get involved in community service projects and inter-generational programs to reduce violence in their neighborhood.

Kids are taught conflict resolution, maturing and values through role playing and then discussing such questions as what did you hear heard from peers and what was said that motivates you?

“A person who is wise teaches you solve your own problems,” says Phelps.


Students can also join Peace Builders Youth Boards, which plans activities, service projects, field trips and family events. Some recent programs include a bicycle fundraiser with Cyberville in Northville, a field trip to the Detroit Zoo and planting a summer garden at the school with a grant from the Skillman Foundation.

The Peer Mentor Program is a peer-to-peer and intergenerational mentoring program aimed at keeping kids in school and is the program that helped Alejandro. Achieving 10th and 11th graders who complete the Peer Motivation Program are recruited and trained as peer mentors. They spend time after school mentoring 8th graders from nearby Earhart and Munger Middle Schools to prepare them for a positive transition to high school. These mentors are supported by trained adult coaches from neighborhood and business communities.

Both these programs go a long way toward creating acceptance and trust among the ethnically-diverse Western students who come from Mexico, Albania, Bengal, Yemen, Japan and Korea. Spanish, English, Arabic and other Asian and Middle Eastern languages are spoken at the high school.

“At the beginning many kids stick with people who look like them,” says Jacqueline Alvarez, project associate. “We talk about stereotypes.”

The Neighborhood Enrichment Program inspires young adults 18 to 35 years old and adult volunteers over age 35 to “break the cycle of violence in the community.” It’s done through peer outreach and organizing intergenerational events with youth involved in the Peer Motivation and Peer Mentor programs. As part of the program Life Directions also offers financial and bank literacy for parents, home repair assessments, mortgage information, credit repair and bilingual help.

Laura Olmeda and Elizabeth Rosan are members of neighborhood program, which includes a “mom support group” where life experiences are shared.

“Mom to mom sharing conversations makes a difference,” says Olmeda. “We help them interact with their faith and help them provide nurturing guidance to their kids to help them overcome obstacles.

Olmeda and her six siblings all went to college. Her goal is to have the next generation do the same.

Rosan was member of the group when she was a young mom and says it was a great to help to her then.

“It is a special way to see what other people are going through in their lives,” she says. “Many have the same problems.”


For Annette Howard the program made all the difference in the world.

“I owe them my life,” says Howard, who now serves as projects director at Life Directions.

In high school she was part of the Youth Circle where she learned how to control her emotions, how to build trust within a group, how to communicate, and, perhaps most important, how to listen.

“I learned it was OK to be angry,” she says. “Just don’t destroy yourself. Find constructive ways to be angry.

“I was inspired by my peers. The soft skills I learned were so deeply rooted in me that when I was 50 years old I still looked back on Life Directions,” she says.

Those soft skills served her well in her careers as a probation officer, counselor and foster parent.

At one point she was a foster parent to three teenage sisters. Originally from Central America, they had been rescued from a human trafficking operation in Texas. Authorities quickly shuttled the sisters to Michigan to get them away from the people who had held them. Testimony from the girls testimony helped send the criminals to prison.

Howard ended up adopting all three, two of whom finished school, which indeed took great perseverance.

“Going to school was not popular where they came from,” she says. “They only finished the fourth grade.

“I used the Life Directions skills learned to help those girls and taught them to use those skills,” says Howard, who is the 14th child in a family of 16 kids. All 16 are still close and successful.

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In the last 43 years more than 168,000 young adults have participated in Life Directions and there have been no incidents of violence associated with the program. While created in Detroit it was replicated in Chicago, New Orleans, San Antonio, Tucson and Macon County, Oregon. Unfortunately, donations fell off during the economic downturn in 2008 and the organization was forced to streamline. Only Detroit and Chicago remain.

There are just six full-time staffers and four part-timers in two cities and 83 percent of all contributions are spent on programs. The cost per student is $600 per year.

The programs have made a huge difference in the lives of many at-risk young people. For example, studies show 93 percent of participating 8th graders finish high school on time, 74 percent take responsibility for their future and 68 percent consider the consequences before acting.

“Life Directions is a community-based organization that works in the school and become one of the parents and wakes (the students) up to what they need to get a life,” says Phelps.

That direction is certainly up.

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