Youth services professionals who attended this week's Fourth Annual Youth Services Networking Conference heard a tale of redemption. They listened as Glen Casey told his story of living in an atmosphere of drugs and violence that was consuming him only to reverse course with the help of a teacher and drug counselor and build a future for himself.
Casey lived in the poverty of West Philadelphia, the son of a drug dealer, a kingpin, as some called him..
"I remember the times I'd go out with my father and he'd be sitting with a plate between his legs chopping up white, fluffy powder," Casey said. "Although my dad brought financial security to me and my mom, he also brought horror."
Those horrors included a man coming to their home threatening to kill Casey and his mother over money he said Casey's father owed him, forcing them to flee. By 14 Casey had followed in his father's footsteps.
"I was doing drugs myself," he said. "I was selling crack cocaine…I was arrested. I was shot at…But West Philly was also the place I could make a change in my life."
That change included joining the Youth Success Center at school and getting counseling at the NorthEast Treatment Center. He went from failing nearly every class in ninth grade to graduating with a 3.9 grade point average and attending Temple University before transferring to the University of Pennsylvania. He will graduate this spring with a degree in economics and urban studies and an eye toward a career in policy helping youth.
"This was a change that wasn't made by me myself," said Casey, whose story is the subject of a documentary, "Glen's Village."
"I was able to get services and treatment. Anyone can make a change. The challenge is being able to maintain that change and that's the role you folks play. The support services you supply help us maintain that change."
Nearly 200 professionals from more than 50 youth services organizations from throughout Union County attended the conference, which is sponsored by the Union County Youth Services Steering Committee, 20 public and nonprofit youth services agencies, child advocates, volunteers and faith-based organizations.
The conference is hosted by Community Access Unlimited (CAU), a statewide Elizabeth-based nonprofit providing support programs and services to adults with disabilities as well as youth served under the New Jersey Department of Children and Families (DCF) to enable them to live independently in the community, providing supports in areas including housing, vocational skills and life-skills training, education, advocacy and recreation.
"The purpose of the conference is to identify services and gaps in services, to talk about what works and what we need to work on," said Tanya Johnson, senior assistant executive director of youth services at CAU. "And it allows those of us in the children services sector to put faces with emails. All of this helps us better serve the youth of Union County."
Attendees also heard a presentation by Jessica Trombetta, director of the Office of Adolescent Services, who provided them with an update on the programs and services at DCF, as well as comments by Union County Freeholders Chairman Bruce Bergen and Union County Sheriff Joseph Cryan.
They also attended morning and afternoon roundtable discussions on a variety of topics impacting youth, including domestic violence, housing, human trafficking and trauma informed.
Richard Hlavacek, executive director of the nonprofit Families and Children Together, said he found the conference very beneficial.
"It's really about networking," he said. "I met people I wouldn't necessarily meet in my children's mental health world, people in legal services, with expertise in trauma therapy, some very good people from Trinitas (Regional Medical Center)."
Susana Mateo, coordinator at New Jersey Youth Corps, was thankful for Casey's keynote presentation.
"Sometimes we work day in and day out and we do not see the change," she said. "I'd like to thank Glen for sharing his story."
About Community Access Unlimited
Community Access Unlimited (CAU), celebrating its 37th year in 2016, supports people with special needs in achieving real lives in the community. CAU provides support and gives voice to adults and youth who traditionally have little support and no voice in society. CAU helps people with housing, life skills, employment, money management, socialization and civic activities. CAU also supports opportunities for advocacy through training in assertiveness, decision-making and civil right. CAU currently serves more than 6,000 individuals and families, with the number served growing each year. For more information about CAU and its services, contact us by phone at 908.354.3040, online at www.caunj.org or by mail at 80 West Grand Street, Elizabeth, NJ 07202.