ELIZABETH, NJ - Twelve pairs of shoes lined the stage at the Union County Youth Services Networking Conference, several once belonging to teenagers who took their own lives. Tricia Baker, whose son, Kenny, died by suicide in 2010, told the youth services professionals in the room that the young people in their care often have no one to talk to when in crisis.
Baker served as the morning keynote speaker at the sixth annual conference, held at Community Access Unlimited (CAU). CAU is a Union County-based, statewide nonprofit that strives to integrate people with disabilities and at-risk youth into the general community through housing, vocational and life-skills training, education, advocacy, recreation and more. Nearly 170 professionals in the Union County youth services sector attended.
"They say the worst thing that can happen to a parent is to lose a child," Baker said. "But the worst thing is the day you find out your child stood on the train tracks and had lost all hope and took his own life."
Shortly after her son's death, Baker and her husband, Kurt, founded Attitudes in Reverse to educate people about mental health and related disorders, to help prevent suicide and to enable young people to seek help with dignity.
Baker said teenage suicide has increased 79 percent in the last 10 years, and suicide among children under 12 has doubled. She noted one in five youths experience a mental health disorder, which often leaves them isolated and stigmatized. When her son was struggling with his own mental health issues, Baker recalled, some teachers told him he was lazy. After his death, the high school her son attended placed stickers over his photo in the yearbook.
"We wouldn't tell someone who has cancer, 'Just snap out of it,'" she said. "We have to teach our young people they can talk and who they can talk to."
Laquan Ford, director of Thomas J. Griffin Bridges Program, which enables academically talented but financially limited young men to attend Seton Hall Prep, addressed discipline during his afternoon keynote address. Ford was abandoned by his parents and raised by his great-great-aunt in Newark, surrounded by gangs and violence. He focused on school and eventually graduated from Seton Hall University.
"Just because I got a bad start didn't mean I had to stay there," he told the audience. "Success is being able to say, 'No matter what happens, I'll be okay. This doesn’t make me. I'll define who I am."
The annual Union County Youth Services Networking Conference is sponsored by the Union County Youth Services Steering Committee, a network of leaders from public and private nonprofit youth-serving agencies committed to increasing the availability and accessibility of services and resources to Union County youth and young adults.
Attendees at the conference participated in roundtable discussions on topics ranging from youth in the child welfare system transitioning to adulthood to human trafficking and trauma-informed care. They also were given an update by Mollie Greene, director of clinical services at the New Jersey Department of Children & Families.
"The annual Youth Services Networking Conference is an opportunity for youth services professionals from throughout the county to come together, hear the stories of others, receive valuable updates and learn," said Rolando Zorrilla, managing assistant executive director for youth services at CAU. "Equally important, it is an opportunity for them to network, to place a face with a name or meet new people in their sector who might be able to help them be more effective in supporting youth."
Eric Graham, community relations liaison at the Union County Workforce Development Board, attended the conference.
"This conference is amazing because it brings people together to hear people's life stories and to provide supportive services that some people are not aware of," he said. "That creates sustainability."
Olu Oyedele, the public health specialist at the Council of Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey, came away very impressed with the keynote speakers.
"I hope to be able to use their personal stories to impact change," she said.
For more information about CAU and its services, contact us by phone at 908.354.3040, email@example.com or by mail at 80 West Grand Street, Elizabeth, NJ 07202.