Youth guidance nonprofit celebrates 40 years

In his youth, Gerald Tirado knew how to find trouble.

“Pretty much hanging around the wrong crowd. Drinking a lot, smoking a lot, making silly decisions, things like that,” said Tirado.

After two stints behind bars by the age of 16, the Youth Advocate Programs found Tirado.

“What my mentor showed me was that I can have fun doing things like board games. I do all kinds of sports nowadays — tennis, soccer. I instruct at a sports came. So I would say he game me, definitely, a good alternative,” he said.

Today, Tirado has been through college, and YAP has hired him as an advocate.

Yap, as it’s called, says it has countless success stories as it celebrates 40 years in New Jersey. Forty years of strategies to keep families together and keep troubled youth from incarceration.

“We develop and individualized service plan for that person and their family. And the difference between our service plans and others is that the family drives the plan,” said Jeff Fleisher, YAP executive director. “They have voice and choice. They have a voice to tell us what their needs are, and they have choices in what happens to them and their families. So they actually help us design a blueprint to help them move forward to stay safe, to stay out of institutions, stay arrest free.”

The celebration included bowling for teens and pre-teens at Monmouth University, and workshops like Story Slam for advocates and teens.

“We find that it’s like, as with all arts creation, and as with all kind of human expression, when people can begin to tell or articulate their story, they both have a deeper understanding of themselves. But you’re also able to build empathy among community groups. So if people understand that they might have had a similar experience, then they consider that and they relate to each other in a different way,” said John Heller, director of education and outreach at coLAB Arts.

Yap recognized some of its staff who’ve been with the nonprofit for more than 20 years. They’re advocates on the front line of coalitions to call for the closure of the Jamesburg Prison, for instance.

YAP is mostly government funded, but it recently got a grant for $20 million from the former Miscrosoft executive, and owner of the LA Clippers, Steve Ballmer to expand what it does.

“Basically he did a study with the John Jay School of Criminal Justice and we found that a year after they leave our program, 90 percent are still in the community and not institutionalized,” Fleisher said.

Today, Tirado quotes Einstein and Twain and offers advice about life.

“I feel that everybody, even if not just getting into trouble, I feel like having someone to help you guide your decisions is always a good thing,” he said.