Melissa Sawyer and two of her colleagues founded the Youth Empowerment Project (YEP) in 2004 in order to provide re-entry supports to help youth who had been involved with the juvenile justice system to build healthy lives, steer clear of the justice system, and remain safe. YEP has since expanded its programming to include providing services to youth who had not been incarcerated but were at-risk because of their life situations. Since its inception, YEP has earned local and national recognition for being at the cutting edge of progressive programs for at-risk youth. YEP has grown significantly, strategically and steadily over the past twelve years. In its first year of operation it had one program, served 25 youth and had an annual budget of $235,000. In 2016, the organization, which is the largest, most comprehensive youth serving organization in New Orleans, is managing an annual budget of over $3.4 million and serving over 1,000 youth through ten programs that operate out of eight service locations.
Through our ten programs, YEP provides New Orleans youth between the ages of 7 and 24 with an array of age-appropriate services that include high school equivalency and literacy instruction; assistance with transitioning into post-secondary education and employment opportunities; job readiness training; afterschool enrichment; academic support and tutoring; summer programming; mentoring; intensive case management; assistance with basic needs; and a holistic set of client-centered ancillary wrap-around services that are unique to each youth and their individual circumstances.
YEP’s founders started the organization because there were no programs in the region (or in the state of Louisiana) that focused on providing re-entry services to youth returning home to the greater New Orleans region from secure and non-secure juvenile facilities. YEP’s founders were all former colleagues from the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana’s Post Disposition Project – and they felt a sense of urgency to create YEP based on their firsthand knowledge of the lack of services that were geared toward supporting formerly incarcerated children and the high recidivism and early death rates of this population.