How Manchester Police Athletic League’s Choices Empowers Youth Via Mentoring, Diversion

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By Carlota Morgado de Almeida

The Manchester Police Athletic League’s Choices program connects at-risk youth and formerly incarcerated individuals to build trust and drive positive change.

The Manchester Police Athletic League (MPAL), an afterschool organization that “connects cops and kids”, is making a significant impact on the lives of young people in Manchester, New Hampshire. To shed light on this work, Evenor Pineda, Intervention Programming Coordinator, and Tony Hebert, MPAL Volunteer and Mentor, talked to the New Hampshire Center for Justice and Equity (NHCJE) about MPAL’s youth mentorship and court diversion programs.

MPAL’s mission is to offer youth a safe, structured environment through various athletic and enrichment programs like boxing, aikido, wrestling, cooking, cross-training, girls empowerment, and skateboarding. It also has the only accredited juvenile court diversion program in the city of Manchester. This program aims to steer young people away from the court system by addressing behavioral issues early and providing constructive alternatives. 

In addition, MPAL runs Futures, a weekly group skill-building program, which has evolved into an additional program, Choices, a more intensive one-to-one mentoring initiative, to foster positive choices and productive community involvement. Both programs benefit from the involvement of vetted formerly incarcerated individuals, like Evenor and Tony, who offer relatable guidance and consistent support.

Building Practical Skills and Positive Relationships

Now in its fourth year, Futures is a referral-only program that provides a structured environment for skill-building through weekly group meetings. Referrals come from various sources, including court diversion, juvenile probation, school resource officers, or families that are MPAL members, ensuring that those who need it most can access the free program.

Demand for more individualized support for at-risk youth led to the creation of an expanded version of the Futures program, called Choices. Launched in September 2023, the Choices program pairs young people with mentors who have lived through the correctional system to develop practical skills. Leveraging their past experiences to connect with youth on a deeper level, these mentors help them navigate challenges, set goals, and develop resilience.

Evenor exemplifies the transformative power of these relationships: “It brings a different dynamic when we can sit in the room and say, ‘Hey, this is exactly what I did at your age. You’re doing the same thing I did,’” he explains. 

Tony adds that building trust and understanding has a bigger impact than the cautionary tale:  “What’s special about us is not our experience; it’s the ability to be vulnerable with these kids and open up without glorifying our past,” he says.

Often sharing similar backgrounds from low-income or single-parent households, these connections help break down barriers of mistrust and open pathways to meaningful dialogue. The consistent presence and positive influence of a mentor plays a vital role too, as in these scenarios parents and caregivers are often unable to be present in their kids’ lives due to juggling multiple jobs and life’s demands.

For many participants, the Choices and Futures programs represent the first time they have felt truly heard and supported. As Tony observes, “At first they’re very on guard. Once they start trusting us, they start seeking us out for advice with situations in their daily lives.”

Breaking Down Barriers and Judgement

In addition to its sports and behavior programs, MPAL is dedicated to breaking down barriers and challenging judgments within the community. By inviting community members, including law enforcement officers, to participate in activities and events, MPAL fosters mutual respect and understanding. One standout event is their Pizza Fest, held during school vacations. This event brings together local police officers and youth to sample and vote on pizzas from various local businesses, allowing them to connect in a relaxed, fun environment. 

Additionally, MPAL engages in community outreach at schools and organizations like the YMCA, and the Boys and Girls Club. Officers and mentors participate in panels and discussions, encouraging students to rethink their assumptions about people from different backgrounds. A notable example is when the Mayor of Manchester visited MPAL. Initially introduced without his title, he shared his journey before revealing his position, highlighting that appearances can be misleading.

Aligned with the values at the core of the Futures and Choices programs, these initiatives emphasize empathy, understanding, and the importance of not judging a book by its cover. The result is a community where trust and respect are the norms.

Supporting Reentry and Rehabilitation

MPAL’s commitment extends beyond youth programs to supporting formerly incarcerated individuals during their reentry. The mentors recognize the critical need for more comprehensive reentry programs in New Hampshire, as they recount facing significant barriers, particularly with employment and societal stigma, when they were released from prison. By involving formerly incarcerated individuals as mentors, MPAL provides them with a sense of purpose and an opportunity to contribute positively to their community.

Evenor’s testimony highlights this dual benefit: “I was able to learn some skills while in a halfway house. Then, I was fortunate to connect with a supportive parole officer who introduced me to volunteer opportunities. This eventually led to a part-time job and then a full-time position at MPAL.”

Tony’s journey further underscores the importance of having a support system and positive connections: “Evenor and I connected because we were cellmates for five years. We stayed proactive in prison and I started volunteering even before my official release.”

However, successful reentry into society shouldn’t hinge only on personal strength, having a safety net of friends and family, or even benevolent parole officers. More support and reintegration programs are needed, including education and vocational opportunities, meaningful community involvement, mental health services, and substance abuse programs. 

How to Get Involved

MPAL’s work relies heavily on community support. As a nonprofit organization, MPAL welcomes donations and volunteer efforts to sustain and expand its programs. Here are ways to get involved:

  • Volunteer: Whether you have a background in sports, education, or simply a desire to make a difference, your time and skills can have a profound impact.
  • Donate: Financial contributions help provide resources and opportunities for Manchester’s youth.
  • Share Your Story: Individuals with unique experiences, especially those who have overcome significant challenges, can inspire and guide the youth at MPAL.
  • Participate in Events: Your presence can help strengthen the bond between youth, law enforcement, and community members.

For more information, visit MPAL’s website.

Evenor Pineda, MPAL Intervention Programming Coordinator

Evenor began his journey at MPAL as a guest speaker for the Futures program in late 2020, sharing his story of growing up in a troubled home, turning to the streets, and serving a lengthy prison sentence. Evenor uses his story to connect with justice-impacted youth. In 2021, Evenor’s role with MPAL expanded, becoming a regular volunteer with the Futures and Diversion programs, and in 2022, he was hired part-time to co-facilitate Futures. As of August 2023, Evenor was hired as the full-time Intervention Programming Coordinator and rolled out the Choices programs. In this role, Evenor continues working with justice-impacted youth as a mentor and resource to the community.

Tony Hebert, MPAL Volunteer and Mentor

About Tony Hebert

Tony Hebert has called the Granite State his home for 26 years and resides in Milford, NH with his wife and three teenage children. Tony is a passionate community advocate and mentor to numerous young men and women involved in NH’s criminal justice system. As a previously incarcerated person, he’s dedicated his life to bettering himself and those around him. Over the course of Tony’s career, he’s worked in the healthcare, hospitality and food, construction, and transportation sectors, with increasing degrees of responsibility including supervision. As a lifelong learner, Tony’s has received and completed multiple certifications including CCSNH’s Work Ready Program, Toastmasters International, National Career Readiness Program and Blackstone Career Institute’s Criminal Law Certification. Tony’s currently a volunteer with the Manchester Police Athletic League’s Future and Choices Program as a credible messenger mentor.

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