Between wildfires, land in the US West has short 10- to 15-year reprieve

In the wake of a devastating wildfire, burnt land has a respite before the next blaze. But until now, no one has known just how long that effect lasted across the US West. Researchers from the University of Colorado Denver and Portland State looked into the increasing rates and intensity of fires in the U.S. West, like Colorado’s Hayman Fire and California’s Camp Fire, are up tenfold over the last 40 years. They wanted to know, once the shrubs, trees and other woody fuels have burned up, how long before the next one?

I Thought I Could Help My Last Mentee — But I Was Wrong

mentor: Young African American male outside wearing a black and white baseball jersey henley shirt looking serious

Ursula Page/Shutterstock


It’s pretty to believe that if one only puts in the time, he can save a wayward child. It doesn’t always work out that way. The troubled boy I mentored for 6½ years, through a Norwalk, Conn., school volunteer program, fired me last May. We’d been together since he entered fourth grade, and until our parting I’d visited him at school almost weekly, as well as periodically throughout summer. Now 17, he no longer wants to meet. 

mentor: Ron Berler (headshot), author of “Raising the Curve,” smiling man with gray hair wearing gray T-shirt

Ron Berler

I can’t say I’m surprised. For the last 2½ years, he has been spiraling toward a bottom he has yet to reach. Twice in the last 17 months he has been arrested, once on felony gun and conspiracy charges for which he was arraigned as a juvenile — he and four others attempted to sell a stolen handgun to their “buyer,” an undercover cop — and more recently for theft of about $150 in jewelry from a local CVS pharmacy, while still serving a nine-month probation sentence for the gun crime. The judge, the boy told me, warned that he’d be sentenced to a youth detention center if he appeared in his courtroom again. 

“Unless you make some changes, that’s where you’re headed,” I said, during one of our last meetings.

“Probably,” the boy responded with a shrug, adding that he didn’t fear prison life. 

I believed him, knowing that he spoke from experience. Following his gun arrest, he was remanded to the Juvenile Detention Center at Bridgeport, one of Connecticut’s two juvenile detention facilities, until the date of his first court hearing, a week later. 

Since I am not the boy’s parent or guardian, I was not permitted to speak with or visit him during his time there. The day he was released, I drove to his home. He greeted me with a high five, led me to the kitchen and lifted his pants leg. Encircling his ankle was an electronic monitor; he was confined to his apartment. School was not an issue, he told me. Because of the nature of his crime, he had been suspended indefinitely pending an expulsion hearing. 

I hardly knew what to say. The boy and I had traveled a great distance together. He was 10 when we met, a shy, skinny Haitian-American with puppy eyes and black dreadlocks down to his shoulders. He wasn’t much of a student, due primarily to a lack of desire. But he wasn’t a troublemaker, either. 

Downward spiral

Then in middle school he discovered marijuana and his grades collapsed. By his freshman year in high school, he was often high when he arrived on campus. He found new friends, many of them equally troubled, and began regularly mouthing off to teachers.

Suspensions followed. Often after second period he snuck off campus for an hour or more to hang out at a local Dunkin’ Donuts. One day he walked out midway through a class and while wandering the halls was confronted by the principal. 

“Where are you supposed to be?” he asked.

“You’re the principal, you tell me,” the boy snapped.

When the boy told me about their exchange, I was straightforward with him, practical. 

“Have you ever won an argument by talking back to a school official or teacher?” I asked.  

“No,” he admitted. 

“Then why would you do it?”

“I don’t know,” he answered.

But I do. Like many students enrolled in school-based mentoring programs nationally — estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands, according to the director of research and evaluation for MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership, Michael Garringer — the boy leads a disfigured life. His parents are long divorced. He lives with his father, who leaves early for work, before the boy lights up. He has little contact with his mother. 

For most of his school years, he was classified as learning disabled; he still can barely sign his name. He has anger management issues. He’s impulsive, a follower, easily influenced by others. I once asked him what he’d do if he were walking down the street with his friends and the others decided to jump a passing stranger. He told me he wouldn’t intercede, that it would be none of his affair. 

High school graduate?

Early on, before his behavior began to spin out of control, I thought I could help him. It is the mindset every volunteer mentor must have — similar, I imagine, to the positivity a pediatric oncologist must bring when meeting a new patient. In my dozen years with Norwalk’s youth program, administered by the city’s Human Services Council, I worked with seven troubled boys and believed I could aid them all. 

My goal for this boy, as with the others, had been to see him through high school and perhaps beyond. Norwalk’s program awards any child who continues with his or her mentor for at least four years and through graduation a $2,000 college scholarship. That’s a lot of money for a family with little. But none of those I’d worked with had made it that far. 

I had hoped for a better outcome with this boy, not just for him, but for me. I was approaching retirement age, and had decided he’d be my last mentee. I dearly wanted to see him graduate, perhaps enroll at the local community college, at any rate succeed. 

Instead his troubles metastasized, escalating beyond the classroom. One day a restaurant owner caught him leaving without paying the check. Several times, he told me, he sneaked out of his home late at night, met up with friends and went juggin’, which he described as breaking into unlocked cars and stealing what was there. 

His situation, I knew, was growing critical. My role as mentor was to be the boy’s friend and advocate, but also to serve as a gentle advisor, a stable presence in his turbulent life. With his father’s permission, I invited Bashaun Brown, whom I’d met through the Yale Prison Education Initiative, to speak with him. 

Brown had served 6½ years in prison for robbing a Waterbury, Conn., bank. While incarcerated, he had turned his life around, eventually enrolling in a for-credit, college-in-prison program run by Wesleyan University. For two hours, he sat in the boy’s living room and shared his story of crime and redemption, urging the teen not to follow his own self-destructive path. 

The boy, eyes wide, was rapt — until Brown departed. Within minutes, he returned to video games and talking basketball. I hadn’t expected an instant turnabout. But the gun crime that followed — I was unprepared for that. 

No contact

“So, what’s the most valuable thing you learned at the detention center?” I asked in his kitchen, hoping that his week in lockup had served as a wake-up call. In fact, I viewed it as a last line of defense. No one — not his father, his teachers, his school social worker, me — had been able to get through to him, to guide him toward making better life choices. He needed both a gentle hand and a firm one — one that reached into his heart to make him aware of his human potential, and another that said to him, “This far into the justice system and no further.” 

The boy didn’t hesitate. He’d made a connection with another juvenile, he told me, who would supply him with drugs if he wished to start dealing. 

Several weeks later, citing the nature of his crime, the school district expelled him for the 2018-19 school year. He was assigned to an online education program in a separate building, along with others who’d been tossed from school. The boy slipped further. He was absent or tardy nearly every day last year, was suspended multiple times and will have to repeat some of his courses. 

Now he’s back in his old high school — for the time being. The school district reinstated him and in late August he returned, reluctantly, to campus. I’m unsure how long he’ll last. His second day there, he received an in-school suspension. And more recently, an out-of-school one.

According to Human Services Council regulations, I am not permitted to initiate contact with the boy or his family now that he has terminated our mentoring relationship. He is free, though, to contact me. 

He hasn’t. More than seven months have passed since I’ve spoken with the boy, and still I think about him daily — who he’s become, who he still has the potential to be. David Hay, his elementary school principal, tried to reassure me: “Twenty years from now he might think back on the advice you gave him, and it may finally kick in.” 

I worry that 20 years from now he’ll be in prison. Or dead. 

I doubt I’ll hear from the boy again.

Ron Berler is the author of “Raising the Curve: A Year Inside One of America’s 45,000 Failing Public Schools.” He has spent much of his career reporting on youth issues.

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Youth Villages Names Jessica Foster Chief Strategy Officer

Jessica Foster newsmaker headshot; dark-haired woman in sweater smiling at camera

Youth Villages

Jessica Foster

Youth Villages recently named Jessica Foster as its new chief strategy officer.

The appointment is a promotion from within, as Foster has been with the national children’s mental and behavioral health nonprofit for nearly nine years. First hired to serve in various strategy, business development and policy roles, she quickly moved up the ranks of the organization.

Foster soon became managing director of strategy, business planning and policy; serving in this position until January of 2016 when she was appointed executive director of strategic partnerships.

Foster’s career before Youth Villages is highlighted by time in private sector consulting work and in the public sector working in the U.S. Senate.

Her first position after earning a bachelor’s degree in public policy in 2001 was with Monitor Deloitte, a multinational strategy consulting company which provides services to senior management of corporations, nonprofits and governments around the world. She then served as a legislative aide to U.S. Senator Arlen Specter for two years from 2005 to 2007, advising him on child welfare, economic development, public housing and nonprofit issues.

Turning her focus back to her education, Foster gained admittance to the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania for graduate work. She would earn an MBA in marketing and then return to the consulting industry, working at the Boston Consulting Group for about a year and a half. It was after this stint that she made her move to Youth Villages, where she has been an integral part of the organization ever since.

“As we expand our organization, we want to focus more on how to grow and expand services to impact the overall child welfare system in this country,” said Patrick Lawler, CEO of Youth Villages in a press release about the appointment. “Jessica is the ideal person to lead this effort. She, as much as anyone, has helped drive our tremendous growth in the last few years.”

Jessica Foster assumes the responsibilities of her new role as chief strategy officer immediately, where she will guide Youth Villages in its efforts to reform child welfare systems and spearhead policy advocacy while ensuring the growth and sustainability of the organization’s programs, services and marketing strategies.

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Meet ‘Firefighter’ in Middle of New York Hospital’s War Against Gun Violence

 Guns Down Life Up: Man in red hoodie with words guns down life up on it looks to left, standing outside in front of apartment buildings

Photos courtesy of Lincoln Medical & Health Center

Performer Kartier Conway at the site where his son Ocean was shot.

NEW YORK — On one Thursday in March, James Dobbins was towering over a group of teen boys as they all headed to a community board meeting in the South Bronx. Dobbins is the assistant director of Guns Down Life Up, a program aimed at curbing gun violence among young men in the Mott Haven neighborhood.

ny bureauDobbins is the right fit for a mentor. He looks tall and tough, but the way his smile makes his eyes crinkle tends to disarm. Sometimes he takes the group to the gym or to record music. But on that Thursday, he was asking them to talk about the program to Community Board 2 in the Hunts Point neighborhood.

Before the presentation began, he got a beep from the pager on his belt, telling him he was needed elsewhere. Just a mile or so east, outside of the basketball court of Patterson Houses, a public housing development, Ocean Conway, 16, had been shot in the head. Dobbins quickly ordered an Uber to Lincoln Medical & Health Center in the Bronx, also about a mile away. 

Dobbins isn’t a surgeon or a nurse. He doesn’t have a medical degree. His role at the bustling emergency room is a relatively new invention. Part of his job exists on Tuesdays and Thursdays, when he hangs out with boys after school in a recreation center at Lincoln. Together, they make music, design clothing, get involved in politics. 

But when he gets paged, Dobbins considers himself a sort of firefighter who puts out emotional ones. 

He finds credible messengers

When he got to the hospital that Thursday, he was greeted by a sea of angry people waiting in the 58,000-square-foot emergency room. Each year, more than 100,000 people are brought in, but the crowd was waiting for just one. They were trying to find out if their friend was going to die. 

“The whole projects was there,” Dobbins says now. “A lot of kids with a lot of anger, who were yelling. Upset. Saying, ‘I can’t believe this crap is happening. Who did this?’”

There were at least 30 people in the hallways. But Dobbins was laser-focused. His eyes carefully scanned the room. He was looking for the person ready to retaliate, and maybe the person looking to finish the job. 

“Everybody knows somebody who knows somebody. It’s a real sticky situation,” he said. “I want to make sure there’s no infiltrators or undercover spies.” 

He sent out texts to other “credible messengers,” his contacts on the streets who might be able to help the crowd cool down. Most importantly, he looked for family. 

Guns Down Life Up, an anti-violence program funded by New York City’s Department of Health and Hospitals, began in 2011 at Harlem Hospital. The goal was to both prevent gun violence and help friends and families in the wake of a gunshot wound.

Hospitals and their staff encounter gun violence more than any other city institution, and thus have a kind of responsibility to treat it before it starts, Dobbins said. 

“The doctors are there to comfort the patients, the police officers come for the criminals,” he said. “But who’s there for that family member that’s traumatized? Who’s there for a young man that just saw his friend get shot?” 

Focusing on gun violence prevention, not just the treatment of a gunshot wound, is a relatively new trend among health care professionals. The first hospital-based gun violence prevention program started in Oakland, Calif. in 1994, according to the Health Alliance for Violence Intervention. Now there are more than 40 hospital-based violence intervention programs registered under the Alliance. And an additional 50 programs in the United States are modeled after the cure violence model, started in Chicago in 2000, which encourages communities to treat violence as a health issue. 

In New York City, there are four programs: Kings County Hospital has a Kings Against Violence Initiative, Jacobi Hospital in the Bronx has a program called Stand Up to Violence and Guns Down Life Up has expanded to both Harlem Hospital and Lincoln Medical Center in the South Bronx.

It’s hard to tell through data and statistics the exact impact a violence intervention program in a hospital has because crime as a whole has been on a downward trend in cities like New York and Chicago. Shooting incidents in the Bronx are down only 6% in the last two years, but down 83% over the last 25 years, according to the New York City Police Department’s most recent CompStat report. In 2019, there were 251 shooting victims in the Bronx, and a majority survived. 

But someone who gets shot and survives is more likely to get shot again, Dobbins says, or loved ones of a gunshot victim are themselves likely to be shot. It’s often his job to find credible messengers, someone who might be capable of calming people down and keeping them from retaliating after they’ve watched a loved one suffer. The goal of a credible messenger is usually to keep an already volatile situation from escalating, Dobbins said. 

Trauma surgeon Nicholas Caputo said that when friends or family members go out looking for the person who attacked their loved one, it often ends in more bloodshed, perpetuating a cycle of violence. 

When he first started at Lincoln 10 years ago, he overheard a group of kids talking in the trauma bay, planning to go after the person who shot their friend. 

“A few hours later, one of those kids came back and he was shot,” Caputo said. “And he died as well.”

After school

But Guns Down Life Up goes a step further than violence interrupters. As a form of prevention, Dobbins attempts to take the teens who could be most susceptible to violence off the street completely. 

The 20-some kids from the South Bronx who meet in hospital conference rooms twice a week after school take classes on photography, how to build a fashion brand, how to record music in a studio. But Dobbins also sprinkles in more serious lessons, such as how to defuse a potentially violent or deadly situation, or how to help friends walk away from a confrontation.  

Guns Down Life Up: Smiling man with black polo shirt with orange patch that says life up stands in front of white wall with logos that say guns down life up

James Dobbins is the assistant director of the nonprofit New York City group Guns Down Life Up.

In 2017, when the most recent data was available, the CDC reported that a majority of the 51 people who died of gun-related violence in the Bronx that year were black men. And nationwide, homicide is still the leading cause of death in African-Americans 1 to 19 years old and 20 to 44 years old. 

Jonita Bell, a nurse at Lincoln, happily enlisted her grandson in the program last year. She knew he was no stranger to gun violence. She asked that he not be named because members of the after-school program have been ridiculed and she is afraid of what might happen to him. 

She knows that one night, in the middle of the night, her 13-year-old grandson woke to what he thought was fireworks. 

But they weren’t. 

Three loud pops. He ducked his head out the window into the summer air. People were running away. He couldn’t see anything else. And soon the street quieted down. So he got back in bed, only to be woken again a half hour later to banging on his front door. 

His uncle was on the other side. And his cousin was slumped around the uncle’s shoulders — covered in blood, a bullet lodged in his head. The uncle lurched into the kitchen, his son still dangling on his shoulders. He was looking for car keys to drive to the hospital. 

They took off. They arrived at Lincoln Hospital’s Emergency Room just in time for doctors to able to save the cousin’s life. 

Meanwhile, the boy went back to sleep. 

The violence wasn’t shocking to him, he said. Not even at 13. 

“We used to just be playing in the park, we heard gunshots, everyone circled the ambulance. It was just how things went,” he said.  

But now 16, sitting in the same hospital that once saved his cousin, he is wearing a red hoodie that says “Guns Down Life Up.” 

When his grandmother first forced him into the program, he sat in the corner silently as everyone was getting to know each other. He didn’t want new friends, he said. But then he took a photography class, and realized he liked taking pictures. And he liked audio engineering. And he liked designing T-shirts. 

“I have too many things on my mind. I can’t even focus on one. Positive things.”

In the taxi

Ocean Conway played basketball at the Patterson Houses court most nights after school. When he started to head home from the court on a cold March 21, he saw two men he recognized. And then one of them pulled a gun. 

He thrust his iPhone in front of his face to soften the blow of a bullet aimed at his head. It helped. The small sharp metal ricocheted and barely missed his brain. 

An ambulance came. A medic wheeled him into the emergency room at Lincoln Medical Center. A nurse made a phone call. 

Kartier Conway picked up. He was backstage, getting ready to tap dance in a theater on the Lower East Side. Soon he would be sprinting out of the lounge, hailing a taxi. 

As Conway sat in traffic, he prayed. 

“I just said God, please don’t take my son now. I’ve been through enough already in my life.”

Conway, 33, grew up in Harlem. He lost his father when he was 3 and his mother when he was 16. The year his mother died, Ocean was born. 

“It was like a trade-off to me,” Conway said. “A little something that was precious.”  

Conway is a talented tap dancer, the youngest to dance with Sandman Sims at the Apollo Theater. He thought he had raised his son outside the tragedy he grew up with. 

As Conway went through the sliding doors of Lincoln Hospital, his thoughts had moved from prayer to retribution. 

“I was thinking, ‘Who did this to my son?’” Conway said. “Nobody wants their kid to be hurt. It doesn’t matter what you preach, what you stand for. When it hits home …” his voice trailed off. 

Then he saw James Dobbins. 

Dobbins is a crusader for GDLU swag: black T-shirts, hoodies with a green swatch in the middle filled with the program’s logo. Similar to a hashtag, he thinks the T-shirts symbolize a movement, and he’s usually wearing one of them. 

But that Thursday, he had on a long white medical jacket, a button-up and a tie — one he wouldn’t take off until 2 the next morning. 

He recognized Conway. In fact, he knew him well. Conway also doubled as a credible messenger for Guns Down Life Up. Dobbins had given Conway T-shirts and hoodies to pass out at the dance lessons he taught at high schools. But now, Conway found himself on a completely  different side of the program. 

“People see the other side of things that I do, promotions, engaging kids, dance, music, fashion,” Dobbins said. “Now he’s seeing the sort of nuts and bolts of what I do. He’s a parent, and I’m just kind of being there, consoling him.”

Suddenly, Dobbins was glad he had decided to put on a tie that day. He looked credible, like a real hospital employee. And someone who could help Conway get to his son. 

“It made him feel comfortable with me to see who I am, that I’m important,” Dobbins said. “‘Here let me escort you.’ And they let me go upstairs, so he saw I wasn’t really just Jim, James, Jimbo, whoever from the streets.”

Dobbins escorted him to the operating room. Conway wasn’t allowed in, but the father had to hear something to curb his anxiety. So Dobbins flagged down one of the doctors he knew. She told him exactly where the bullet had landed and that Ocean had been talking when he was brought in. He would likely survive. 

‘I’m OK’

After 10 hours of surgery, Ocean did survive. But he wouldn’t wake up until weeks later, from a medically induced coma. 

In that time, Conway realized he had to be his son’s voice. Guns Down Life Up helped. They held three rallies for Ocean while he was comatose. 

“It helps,” Conway said. “My son would have been another kid that just got shot and no one would have known nothing about it.” 

Police released photos of two suspects two weeks after the shooting, but didn’t make arrests until May. 

This is the final tier of Guns Down Life Up’s efforts: offering support through recovery and making sure everyone is paying attention. The program offers resources for families on how to relocate if they are feeling threatened. They’ll hold vigils and run press campaigns. 

For Conway, Dobbins was someone to talk to in the hospital, as he was waiting for his son to wake up. 

One day, at the start of May, he did. 

“I was sitting over him when he started talking to us,” Conway said. He’ll never forget what his son said when he opened his eyes. Ocean looked at him and said: “‘Dad, you look tired.”

“And I was like, ‘Oh, you tryna be funny.’” As he remembers this, Conway takes his flat-billed cap off for a moment, and wipes away a few tears. 

“And he says, ‘You need to go get some sleep. I’m OK.’”

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Climate (not humans) shaped early forests of New England

A new study in the journal Nature Sustainability overturns long-held interpretations of the role humans played in shaping the American landscape before European colonization. The findings give new insight into the rationale and approaches for managing some of the most biodiverse landscapes in the eastern U.S.

Ozone-depleting substances caused half of late 20th-century Arctic warming, says study

A scientific paper published in 1985 was the first to report a burgeoning hole in Earth’s stratospheric ozone over Antarctica. Scientists determined the cause to be ozone-depleting substances—long-lived artificial halogen compounds. Although the ozone-destroying effects of these substances are now widely understood, there has been little research into their broader climate impacts.

AZ Community Health and System Change Grants

OUR GRANT OPPORTUNITIES: Youth Today’s grant listings are carefully curated for our subscribers working in youth-related industries. Subscribers will find local, state, regional and national grant opportunities.

THIS GRANT’S FOCUS: Community, Health, Health Equity, Social Change, Arizona
Feb. 28, 2020

“The work of more effectively improving well-being requires us to recognize all of the elements of a healthy community and then collaborate on more equitable, comprehensive approaches to opportunities and challenges we face. Our grant processes are designed to support collaborative projects that are improving the health of Arizonans by making systems more effective, equitable, and sustainable. System change takes time. In an effort to better support developing organizations and coalitions, Vitalyst is providing Spark Grants, ranging from $10,000 to $30,000 and lasting up to 1 year. The intention of the Spark Grants is to support collaborations in the journey to address systemic change. The work should utilize a health equity lens to address two or more Elements of a Healthy Community to dream up a solution that is more effective, equitable, or sustainable than existing approaches.”

Funder: Vitalyst Health Foundation
“Arizona-based organizations with a tax-exempt status who are serving Arizonans (fiscal sponsors are okay; this generally includes nonprofits, government, faith-based, etc.).”
$10,000 – $30,000

>>> CLICK HERE to see all of Youth Today’s GRANT LISTINGS

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