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New Kensington-Arnold Youth Commission volunteers seek to put youths 'on right track'

| Wednesday, April 29, 2015, 1:12 a.m.
The newest members of the New Kensington-Arnold Youth Commission, Marneese Cheatham, left, and Nichole Haynes are sworn in by Westmoreland County Family Judge Michele Bononi at New Kensington City Hall on Tuesday, April 28, 2015. The volunteers will help to mentor juveniles serving probation for non-violent crimes.
Erica Dietz | Trib Total Media
The newest members of the New Kensington-Arnold Youth Commission, Marneese Cheatham, left, and Nichole Haynes are sworn in by Westmoreland County Family Judge Michele Bononi at New Kensington City Hall on Tuesday, April 28, 2015. The volunteers will help to mentor juveniles serving probation for non-violent crimes.

By serving on the New Kensington-Arnold Youth Commission, Aaron Moore hopes to provide troubled children with the father figure he lacked growing up.

“I see myself in them,” Moore said. “I've been where they've been.”

Moore is one of at least a half-dozen Arnold and New Kensington residents volunteering as mentors for children who have committed crimes and are being processed through Westmoreland County's juvenile court and probation system.

Members of the youth commissions, which exist in every Westmoreland County school district and are believed to have originated in the 1960s, traditionally have acted as volunteer probation officers for first-time offenders who commit minor, non-violent minor crimes.

New Kensington police Chief Tom Klawinski said the New Kensington-Arnold commission dates back at least 25 years and typically involves juveniles who are charged with crimes such as disorderly conduct, criminal mischief, theft and simple assault.

If a juvenile's case is referred by the courts or juvenile probation to a youth commission, mentors regularly meet and communicate with the offenders for the length of their three- to six-month probation.

They may track community service, talk to the child about the crime and why it was committed, assist with any problems the child is having, and even participate in social activities, according to Leslie Vereen, the vice chairwoman of the New Kensington-Arnold commission.

“We want them to leave here better than they came,” she said.

If the child successfully completes participation in the commission, they can have their record expunged.

Kristine Demnovitch, a supervisor with the county's juvenile probation department, and Westmoreland County Family Court Judge Michele Bononi said they're expanding the commissions' role.

They will include mentoring of juveniles who have committed more serious offenses, completed sentences in some type of disciplinary placement and are on probation.

In conjunction with the probation department, the youth commissions can help the children reintegrate into the community and reduce recidivism.

Bononi said many juvenile offenders don't have a strong support system at home, which likely contributed to their original crime.

Sending them back into the same situation can set them up to fail again.

“I need someone to talk to these kids so that once I get them on the right track, to keep them on the right track,” Bononi said. “The biggest thing that breaks my heart is the kid that I know can make it but has no one who can help.”

Moore, who joined the commission a couple months ago, has worked with several children so far and believes his efforts are making a difference.

“To me, it's a blessing,” Moore said. “It's a pleasure for me.”

During a training session Tuesday that included members of the Burrell and Kiski Area youth commissions, Bononi recognized the New Kensington-Arnold commission's two new members, Marneese Cheatham and Nichole Haynes.

Cheatham said she learned about the commission while volunteering at a food bank and meeting a juvenile offender completing community service.

“They need to know there's people out there who care,” she said.

Haynes believes individualized attention can have a large impact on a child: “It's the small things that really matter.”

Adeline Beighley, director of the county's juvenile probation department, said counties in Pennsylvania have replicated Westmoreland's youth commission idea.

“We're really proud of it,” she said.

Liz Hayes is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4680 or lhayes@tribweb.com.

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