By Rich Bockmann
Clients at the Neighborhood Opportunity Network center in Jamaica still see a probation officer when they visit the building on the corner of Jamaica Avenue and Guy R. Brewer Boulevard, but that is about the only way the new program resembles a traditional probation office.
NeON is part of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Young Men’s Initiative, a public/private partnership aimed at advancing opportunities for young black and Latino men.
A major component of that initiative, which Bloomberg announced last summer, was an overhaul of the city Department of Probation, which supervises about 100 clients in Community Board 12.
The initiative’s partners laid out $30 million to develop NeONs in five neighborhoods across the city, Jamaica’s being the third to open when officials and community members held its grand opening Tuesday.
The first thing that is different about the office is what was once called the waiting room, now known as the resource room.
Designed by professional architects and graphic designers to be inviting, the room is splashed with colorful walls and furniture, and staffed with an improvement team — all aimed at reinforcing the idea that probation is not some chore one is required to check into regularly, but a place to better oneself.
Probation Officer Ray Napier said that in his 24 years working for the department, he learned what makes a successful probationee.
“What works is treating them with respect, treating them with dignity and instilling hope,” he said.
What does not work, Napier said, is “constantly reminding them that they’re on probation, and if you mess up, you’ll be violated.”
The second way in which NeON differs from a traditional probation office is that it partners with about 25 community organizations, many within walking distance of the center, that provide services such as job training, drug treatment and GED assistance.
The NeON center even has space in its building so organizations can visit with probation clients on site.
One of the partners, the Queens Library, offers the Young Men’s Initiative’s Community Education Pathways to Success program — which helps young adults get a GED and pursue higher education — at its Jamaica branch just up the block from the NeON center.
Probationee Sam Vita, 21, said the center was helping him get his GED and enroll in a BMW training program so that he could become a mechanic.
Most importantly, he said, it was helping him be a good role model for his 1-year-old daughter.
Probation Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi likened NeON to the old adage of it taking a village to raise a child — in this case, Jamaica Village.
“It’s this neighborhood helping people in this neighborhood change their lives around,” he said.
Some things, he joked, never change. Schiraldi pointed out the window to note how probation officers could see the library, and could tell whether clients were going to their CEPS class or not.
Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 718-260-4574.