Having a supportive environment is key to forming responsible youth and individuals with character. That’s one of the missions of the Imperial County Probation Department whose youth program is bringing a positive experience to local kids.
The Imperial County Probation Department, in partnership with County Parks and Recreation and the Free Library, created Project ASPIRE (ASPIRE stands for Afterschool Program Integrating Recreation and Education). Project ASPIRE is an after-school and weekend program designed to afford children in underserved communities supervised, pro-social activities. Youth Service Specialists, a new classification under the Probation Department, have been employed to serve the Project ASPIRE youth.
Youth Service Specialists provide educational, recreational, and cultural services to youth participating in the program. In February 2022, Project ASPIRE opened in the City of Westmorland, CA, which, to date, services 12 youth between the ages of 9 and 13.
In addition to Westmorland, Project ASPIRE launched its second site in Heber, CA in May 2022. Similar to Westmorland, Project ASPIRE’s Heber site services youth between the ages of 9 and 13, with a current enrollment of 13.
Project ASPIRE operates three times per week, at their respective sites, from 3:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.
“In addition to our Youth Service Specialists servicing Westmorland and Heber, they also spend a portion of their work week providing services similar to the aforementioned to youth in Imperial County Juvenile Hall as well as youth at Betty Jo McNeece Receiving Home,” Jennifer Gomez-Benavidez, Supervisory Probation Officer at Imperial County Probation Department told Beyond Borders Gazette.
“After our Westmorland and Heber sites were established, our department knew that we wanted to expand on opportunities for our youth, some to include experiences not available in Imperial County. Our Chief, Dan Prince, reached out to the YMCA of San Diego and was able to identify YMCA’s Raintree Ranch in Julian, CA as an appealing opportunity for our youth. Families in both Westmorland and Heber were excited at the prospect of their children attending summer camp and, thanks to the hard work of our probation staff, we were able to secure a spot for our youth at Raintree Ranch this year,” she added.
Any student age 9 – 13, who lives within the community we are servicing and who can commit to consistent program attendance, is eligible to register. If the program is full they will be placed on a waiting list and called when availability arises.
Gomez said that Project ASPIRE provides educational and recreational opportunities such as tutoring, educational games, arts & crafts, cultural activities, team sports, board games, and other structured activities.
“In addition to this, we work with community partners, such as the Imperial Valley Desert Museum and a master gardener, to provide students with other forms of enrichment activities. Aside from this, we have worked with additional community partners, such as the Imperial County Sheriff’s Office, to provide students with anti-bullying presentations and anti-tobacco presentations. Most recently, we have expanded our program to include field trips both in and out of Imperial County. The goal of our program is to provide participants with knowledge and experiences they may not have otherwise gained. Our department hopes that these experiences will, in turn, provide youth with additional skills to be successful in their future endeavors.”
The field trips have been a huge success for many of the youth and truly embody what the program is all about, Gomez-Benavides said. Within the last month, they have gone to Sea World as well as YMCA’s Raintree Ranch Horse Camp. Specifically speaking about Raintree Ranch, some youth had never been away from home overnight. At the end of the week, youth participated in an equestrian show as a culmination of their week of camp. With their families present, youth were able to showcase their equestrian skills; some youth had never ridden a horse before attending Raintree Ranch.
“Our department considers this a huge success for all youth as they were brave enough to step outside of their comfort zone and take on new challenges. We hope that the successes our youth gain while participating in Project ASPIRE can be translated into positive life experiences to encourage them to strive for success in all they do,” Gomez-Benavidez said.
Although the department does work with schools at various levels to prevent crime, Project ASPIRE is designated to provide opportunities to youth before any involvement with the juvenile justice system. They hope that positive interactions and life opportunities will present circumstances that deter youth crime. Separate from Project ASPIRE, the probation department does work in close collaboration with school districts to prevent youth crime.
The probation department provides presentations at schools to all grade levels, throughout the school year, and has a designated probation officer stationed at alternative education school sites Additionally, they do offer deferment programs and provide resources and referrals to youth who have been referred to us through local school districts.