Helping Young Men Make Smart Choices

During their teenage years, male youth face a changing array of life challenges. Whether they overcome those challenges and build success in their lives and communities is, in great measure, a function of their choices.

“I try to get the young men in secure residential treatment to see how every positive step they take leads them forward,” says Darryl Denson. “It’s similar to how I coach. I teach my team, if you execute these plays, you’ll get a good shot. Get enough good shots and you can win the game. I teach the guys in treatment, if you work on your treatment goals, your outcomes are going positive, but if you’re defiant and don’t participate in your own development, you may be here longer than you’d like. You choose.”

By day, Denson is Director of CHD’s Assessment Program at the Department of Youth Services secure residential treatment facility in Springfield. The primary focus of the Assessment Program is comprehensive individual assessments that provide DYS staff with a service plan designed to help the youth to be successful in avoiding reoffending behavior.

After hours, Denson is Head Coach of the Central High School Golden Eagles boys varsity basketball team. In March 2017 he completed his third season as head coach at Central and led his team to its first Western Mass title since 2012. Denson has long-standing ties to Central, having played for the Golden Eagles himself from 1992 to 1996.

These two leadership roles overlap in important ways. “At Central, we focus on academics and basketball and the personal accomplishments that lead to graduation,” said Denson. “At secure residential treatment, we focus on clinical and residential goals and the personal accomplishments that lead to going home. It’s basically the same. In basketball, my guys have to complete a series of goals, one after the other, and really work at it, to win games and have a shot at a championship. In treatment, the guys have to finish their time assignment and their treatment plan, and really work at it, to come out positive with the best chance for doing well and not reoffending.”

Precisely as new residents arrive at the Tinkham Road facility, they meet Denson. “Right before they step foot on this program, they meet me so they know the expectations of being here from the start,” he explained. “Every kid has a different reason for being here and a different plan while they are a resident here, but we try to get them all to realize they’re not on the streets. We say, you need to start thinking like you’re in a job setting and you want to keep that job, so what choices do you make to keep that job?”

Part of Denson’s overall strategy is to keep things basic and consistent. “The residents need to know they are going to be treated consistently and going to have a chance to succeed,” he explained. “They also need to know it’s up to them to make the right choices. There are incentives that residents can earn based on following certain standards and meeting certain expectations. We use positive reinforcement so they realize that we notice they’re doing something right.”   

Denson starts a typical day by checking in with the residents and staff to address any issues and concerns. “I work at being a presence,” he explained. “The residents know I coach so they’re always asking me about the games, and I share the details so they stay connected to the very community that they’re missing out on because of the choices they made before. I want them to see what’s out there when they return to the community.”

Often, male youth in residential treatment have grown up without good male role models, so Denson instills leadership skills in residents. One way he teaches is with examples: his players. “The kids I coach are where they are because of the choices they made before and what they choose to do every day to stay there,” he explained. “It’s no different for anyone else, including the kids I work with in secure residential treatment. I tell them it may not be through sport that you have success. You could be part of arts group or a book reading club or another thing that interests you. Whatever you do, be positive. Go above and beyond. We all have choices and we all have opportunities, but it’s how we choose to take advantage of those opportunities that defines us. When you’re a coach, you’re always teaching. Whether it’s the guys at Central or the guys in residential treatment, I’m always teaching kids about making good choices.”


Photo Credit: Meredith Perri, MassLive

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