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How one St. Paul group is using a unique approach to serve disadvantaged youth

MinnPost photo by Ibrahim Hirsi
Michael Chaney, Project Sweetie Pie founder, talking to a group of communities workers at Sun Ray Library in St. Paul.

On a recent evening, Michael Chaney stood before dozens of other community workers at St. Paul’s Sun Ray Library to speak about opportunities he’s created for young people in north Minneapolis.

Chaney, a longtime activist in the Twin Cities, discussed projects he spearheads to prepare underserved youth for higher education and employment. Those projects include Project Sweetie Pie, a 5-year-old initiative that gives Minneapolis youth skills in urban farming.

Each summer, Chaney works with up to 15 youngsters from STEP-UP — a program of the city of Minneapolis that provides paid internships to high school students — to teach community gardening and entrepreneurship.   

“We’re creating these projects for young people to succeed in higher education,” he said. “We will continue to move down that road to develop entrepreneurs.”

Chaney was among more than 20 community activists who received achievement certificates last month for completing an eight-week training — Ambassadors for Youth Academy — that provided participants hands-on experience to engage and serve young people from disadvantaged communities in the Twin Cities. 

“Our goal in this is to support and train adults to go back to their communities and reach out not just to their kids but to the kids across the street, the kids across the alley,” said David Wilmes, former director of services at St. Paul Youth Services (SPYS), who co-taught the class.

The training was one of several projects of SPYS, a 40-year-old nonprofit servicing 1,200 children of color each year through behavior intervention, family assistance and other means.

“Our basic philosophy is ‘pushing limits is a healthy part of youth development,’” explained Tracine Asberry, the organization’s executive director. “How adults respond can change a child’s life for the better, or the much, much worse.”

Asberry added: “So we work in home, school and in the community with a goal of providing safety net skills, second chances and a value in our youth.”

The Ambassadors for Youth Academy class
MinnPost photo by Ibrahim Hirsi
The Ambassadors for Youth Academy class provides youth workers hands-on experience to engage and serve young people from disadvantaged communities in the Twin Cities.

The organization works with young people who are starting to get in trouble at school, at home, with the law and in the community. Often, Asberry said, society sees such children as a problem, though she said she sees their behavior as a natural part of youth development.

Instead of responding to their behaviors with suspension or incarceration, SPYS has several alternatives in place: Intervention services at home, in school and in the community.  

The organization provides services in various ways, as noted in its website:

  • SPYS provides in-home family-based intervention for Ramsey County youth who are experiencing a mental health, behavioral, or situational crisis. Crisis counselors are on duty 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
  • SPYS serves the small number of Ramsey County children under 10 who have engaged in behavior that could result in a criminal prosecution. … SPYS staff provides comprehensive case management, working with the child and his/her family on anger management, school performance, interpersonal relations, and other lifeskills that will enable the young person to form healthy bonds and behaviors.
  • SPYS’ behavioral intervention specialists first work with school staff to equip them with strategies for pre-empting and de-escalating conflicts. Then, they work directly with disruptive students to modify their behaviors: holding them accountable, while providing guidance and a supportive relationship. Several St. Paul middle and high schools use this program.
  • SPYS’ restorative justice system offers an alternative to court for a range of first time offenses including shoplifting, property damage, and curfew violations, helping young people avoid repeat mistakes and stay out of the criminal justice system.


The eight-week training program that concluded on Nov. 17 is one of SPYS’ services. Those who participated in the training said it equipped them with practical skills and motivation to effectively work with youth in their neighborhoods.

“I learned about youth development, life-skills and about myself,” noted 16-year-old Ernest Marshall, the youngest participant in the training. “Though I’m a young man myself, I feel like I’m in a position to mentor people and help kids out.”

Ibrahim Hirsi can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @IHirsi.

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