Have you ever wondered what it’s like to volunteer for a Street Law program? In this article, Merck’s Ivon Jorrin—Street Law volunteer extraordinaire—shares her experience teaching high school students and youth aging out of foster care.
Ivon Jorrin is a financial analyst for the human health clinical team at Merck & Co., Inc. In 2016, she spotted a flyer in a Merck hallway seeking volunteers for the Making Positive Choices program. Two prongs of this program work with college-bound high school students (Career Exploration) and with underserved youth in foster care (Youth in Transition) to give them the skills needed to navigate the world and their futures. For over 10 years, Street Law and Merck have partnered to provide these volunteer opportunities, and others, to Merck employees in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Both programs employ Street Law’s Legal Life Skills curriculum to provide volunteers with interactive, easy-to-follow lesson plans.
As soon as Ivon saw the flyer, she contacted Street Law consultant Alycia Guichard and got signed up for training. “When I got to the training, I got to see what all the lesson plans look like, and that made me feel like this is something I really need to do,” says Ivon. “I’m always about giving back, but specifically to the youth; they could use this information so much. That’s when it hit home that I really wanted to be involved in this organization. It’s about giving them information they wouldn’t find anywhere else.”
“The idea of helping young people learn the ropes before they enter the real world…really attracted me. I felt I didn’t have that kind of support or information when I was younger.”
Career Exploration is a day program for high school seniors who are either college- or work-bound. Course material is oriented towards college skills and career development, including negotiation skills, conflict resolution skills, and dressing for success. Because some of the students already work, they are familiar with skills like interviewing for a job, “but when I talk about company culture and how to interact with other people appropriately,” Ivon adds, “that really intrigues them. [And] when I share about what I do at Merck, they get really interested. If I tell them, ‘I oversee the finances for over a dozen programs which could add up to hundreds of millions of dollars,’ I see the whole room just look at me and they raise their hands. ‘What about this, what about that?’ They get it and they want to know about the real world. That’s how I know they appreciate it; they are very inquisitive.”
Ivon typically co-teaches with a partner volunteer. She reports that preparation for teaching Career Exploration classes is quick for her, as she has years of work experience to draw from and class sessions are only 40 minutes long. “The information is very straightforward and very easy to understand. I’m familiar with [it] like the back of my hand.”
Youth in Transition
Youth in Transition (YIT), having more legal content, requires greater preparation on the part of volunteers. These evening classes focus on the law, individual rights, and life skills—giving underserved youth agency in improving their lives. “A lot of lessons are geared toward helping them understand their rights, in terms of the law,” Ivon explains. “It dives deep into criminal law, … how to be a good citizen, how to handle dating—for example, what’s considered sexual assault.”
Because the youth are sometimes reticent to participate at first, Ivon says it’s important to make the classes interactive, creative, and hands-on. “Initially, [a lot of students] don’t want to be engaged. Some of them come and sleep throughout the whole day—so you have to really be creative and have a lot of tact in how to approach them. They tend to shut down if you’re too rough with them or ask too much of them. It perks their ears more if we play a game with them or make them feel they’re in charge of doing something.”
Once they acclimate, some YIT students show obvious interest in the lessons. “I can see it in their actions,” Ivon says. “When I ask a question, it’s usually the same kids that jump up to answer or raise their hand or participate or volunteer.” Others, wanting to appear cool in front of their peers and not be seen as an overachiever, are careful not to communicate too much enthusiasm. “[But] I see the same kids coming [to class] all the time. That’s an indication they’re really into it: They’re coming back all the time. Because they don’t have to.”
Youth in these classes are more likely to have had experience with the juvenile justice system, giving them opinions and stories they want to share in class. “I have to be careful because I don’t want them to share too much of their personal stories. But sometimes…they really want to know whether they were doing something right or something wrong and what they can do to avoid those situations,” Ivon explains. “Some things we’ll [let them talk about], but when it gets really personal, I try to reel it in. I don’t know what kind of effect it will have, having people [they live with in group housing] know they have experienced that. And in some cases, they are asking for legal advice. That’s another example of when I have to shut it down, because we can’t give legal advice — but we can tell them what the law is, and how they should behave according to the law.”
She continues, “Every time I think I’ve lost the kids or they’re not engaged, and I ask a question, there’s a kid…who’s been in the back and just chillin’, and jumps up and answers the question and gives a brilliant response. I love that. That gives me life. Even the ones I think aren’t paying attention, they’re paying attention, and they are smart. They are way smarter than a lot of people would think they are. And it brings me a lot of joy to see them come out of their shell in that way. It’s so rewarding.”
Ivon didn’t have resources like Career Exploration or Youth in Transition when she was growing up in a low-income family in the inner city. That’s part of what drives her to make it available to kids now: she recognizes how helpful the information will be to them in the future. Teaching this content also enhances her own professional development, whether it’s better understanding her own conflict resolution style, improving her public speaking skills, or finding new and creative ways to help a group refocus when they get distracted. But it’s the benefit to students that has her most excited.
“I always put myself in their shoes as I work my way through the lessons, trying to feel what they’re feeling or see what they’re seeing. I always keep in the back of my mind that, they’re going to run this country someday, and they need this information to go in and do great things. And make the world a better place. I always tell them they are the future, and we need to do everything in our power to help them to be great leaders or just great citizens.”
Learn more about Street Law’s Legal Life Skills Program.