Group helps youth who have slipped past society's safety net

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Like every other nonprofit organization, 2020 was a challenging year for Empower 225. But seeing what can be accomplished with clients like Joshua Fieldings showed them it was worth it.

Fieldings, 22 and homeless for almost three years, now lives in an apartment with the organization’s help and plans to soon attend welding classes.

It’s a success story and a continuation of the work begun a decade ago by the ministry, which started as an outreach of Healing Place Church and took on the Empower 225 name in 2019.

The program got its start focusing on youths and young adults in Baton Rouge’s 70805 ZIP code area, which has become synonymous with poverty, crime and dysfunction. It combats those issues with an array of services: after-school programs for students in grades six to 12, high school diploma equivalency training, a homeless outreach, job training and transitional housing, and life skills training for youths who age out of foster care.

The geographic target has broadened, but its mission of targeting young people in danger of falling through cracks in society’s safety net has remained intact, even in a year in which a pandemic has caused the organization to do most things differently.

“We want to go after the least of the least that nobody would want to actually serve in any capacity,” said Susan Rogers, Empower 225’s executive director. “That’s what prompted us to target that area and focus on teens. We felt like they were the most vulnerable.”

That pretty much described Fieldings when Brandon Washington, the organization’s director of street outreach, would see him hanging out around other homeless men between Convention and Florida streets. Fieldings dropped out of school after eighth grade, left home at 18 and spent three years living on the streets with a synthetic marijuana habit.

Washington approached Fieldings time and again, inviting him to take advantage of Empower 225’s programs that could provide education and housing. Fieldings turned him down.

But Washington kept coming and kept asking.

“Something about Joshua kept me believing he would eventually embrace what I was offering,” Washington said. “I think by him being on the substance, he wasn’t able to comprehend what I was trying to deliver to him at the moment, but I saw so much potential in him.

“I kept going back giving him whatever resource I could, just sow words of affirmation and positivity into him, but he just wasn’t ready. Sometimes … you have to hit rock bottom.”

For Fieldings, that moment came after a second arrest and jail time for misdemeanor crimes. After getting out early this year, he was ready.

“He used to ride through sometimes and talk to me,” Fieldings said. “He would let me know things could be different.

“It took me to go to jail the last time for me to really realize and wake up and be like, ‘I’ve got to reach out to somebody when I go home.’ I’d known I was too good, basically, to be homeless.”

The next time Washington approached, Fieldings said yes. He’s since taken high school equivalency training and has been living in an apartment Empower furnishes until he can earn enough to pay the rent himself. He has taken the program’s job training and expects to attend welding school this month.

“Since I got with Empower 225, I cleaned myself up,” he said. “I could really see the difference in myself. I really matured up and trying to have a positive mindset about getting what I need out of the program.”

Rogers sees the change.

“He went from homeless and hopeless to hopeful,” she said. “He walks in that confidence now, that desire and hunger to move his life forward. I don’t know if he had that before.”

Empower 225 typically works with 75 youths through after-school programs and another 100 or so under Department of Children and Family Services or Office of Juvenile Justice supervision. It houses eight men in transitional housing and has a 24-unit housing program for the homeless, Rogers said. It reaches about 50-60 clients a year involved in human trafficking

Its work has been noticed by more than its clients. Chick-fil-A recently gave the organization a $50,000 grant, and the One Eighty Foundation of Seattle donated a 12-passenger van to Empower 225 in November.

“It’s a blessing having people take the time out of their life to really help people … for us to accomplish what we really want to accomplish,” said Mark Stevenson, 20, who is working on his high school equivalency diploma.