Change is underway for one program at Oak Park Township. Come this July, the Youth Interventionist Program will bear a new name to match what the township describes as an expanded service which will continue its mission to meet the needs of children and teens across Oak Park and River Forest.

The program – which will soon be called the Youth Engagement Program, or YEP for short – aims to offer more mental health services for youth and strengthen its partnership with local educators, community leaders and park district and library directors. Megan Traficano, youth services director at the township, said the interventionist program was first created in the mid-1990s to prevent young people from using drugs or becoming involved in gangs.

The program, which follows a referral model, addressed the youth and community’s needs, both of which have changed over time, she said. What’s more is that while the program itself grew, people remained unaware of its other services and thought the program was restricted to its original makeup.

“We would be told there’s people in the community who think that they can’t refer certain kids to you because these kids don’t fall into what the intervention program was originally meant to help [with] … and that’s not true,” said Traficano. “We help all kids in the communities, and especially through the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve just seen so much more mental health needs of kids.”

Echoing Traficano, Jonathan Brown, who oversees the interventionist program, wrote in an email to Wednesday Journal that he and his team saw an uptick in anxiety and depression among children and teens even prior to the pandemic. Brown said he and his colleagues have also seen more youth dealing with mental health crises or navigating trauma.

Traficano and Brown said renaming the program to include the word “engagement” encompasses the work they do in the township’s youth services department. The two said  they are teaming up with the park district to host an after-school program for youth and planning to hold mentoring programs. In the past, the program held presentations at schools on cyberbullying.

“We aim to be present in the community,” Brown said in the email.

Traficano shared a similar sentiment, adding that the word “engagement” was meant to amplify the program and promote inclusion.

“Our programs and our services are open to any youth in the community,” Traficano said. “Everybody at some point in their life needs support, needs help, needs some sort of assistance – and that’s OK. That’s what we’re here to do, really.”

“We’ll help you  – and even if it’s not [through] us, we’ll help get you to the right place. That’s just what we want to do. We’re here to engage.”

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