The Youth Empowerment Project (YEP) is a community-based non-profit organization that was founded in 2004. Prior to starting YEP, the organization’s three founders, Melissa Sawyer, Rebecca Kendig and Angela Conyers Johnese, worked together at the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana’s (JJPL) Post-Disposition Project (PDP).
Between 2001 and 2004, PDP played a critical role in reducing the number of juveniles incarcerated in Louisiana by hundreds of youth with quality legal representation and aftercare supports. Despite PDP’s success in helping youth secure early releases from state custody, there was a shortage of quality, accessible and effective programs tailored to meet the needs of high-risk youth in New Orleans. Sadly, many youth who PDP assisted lost their lives to violence in the streets of New Orleans or became involved with the adult criminal justice system.
In 2003, with the passage of Act 1225: The Juvenile Justice Reform Act of Louisiana, there was widespread support for augmenting the investment in community-based programming and reducing the state’s reliance on incarceration. With the passing of this legislation, the support of the Office of Youth Development (currently the Office of Juvenile Justice), and YEP’s founders commitment to providing quality, evidenced based re-entry programming to youth, YEP was created and was the first juvenile re-entry program in Louisiana.
Since YEP’s inception, the organization has grown significantly, expanding its mission exponentially in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in order to meet the increased needs of vulnerable youth in the region. During YEP’s first year of operation, the organization operated only its re-entry program, served 25 youth, and had an annual budget of $235,000; today, YEP is the largest, most comprehensive organization in New Orleans addressing the needs of vulnerable youth. YEP’s current programming includes an array of community-based education, mentoring, employment readiness and enrichment offerings. In 2017, YEP operates 11 programs, has 52 employees and oversees an annual budget of $3.8 million.
YEP’s Co-Founder and Executive Director, Melissa Sawyer, has overseen the day-to-day operations of the organization since day one. Melissa was named “New Orleanian of the Year 2016” by GAMBIT Magazine in recognition of her leadership at YEP.