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Teen trades jail for horse ranch in Charlotte program that rethinks justice
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Teen trades jail for horse ranch in Charlotte program that rethinks justice

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Nestled in a neighborhood just a few blocks from uptown is a horse ranch that has helped keep this young teen out of jail.

Big M Stables has offered a home to 16-year-old Malachi. Through Youth Advocate Programs Inc., he has gotten a job at the ranch as an alternative to going to prison.

“I really think the program saved my family,” Malachi’s father John said.

The father and son asked the Observer not to use their last names in this article because Malachi may be eligible to have his criminal record expunged, something the program promotes.

YAP first came to Charlotte two years ago. It offers wraparound services aimed at preventing youth incarceration.

Finding youth employment is only part of what YAP does. The program also works with the family on a case-by-case basis to help fulfill any other needs — from transportation to support in the legal system to providing computers needed for schooling.

“We just go in and do our best to support families,” Charlotte YAP Program Director Malik Glover said.

Working with horses

YAP first started working with Malachi in December. Teens who are chosen for the program have been involved with the courts in some way, either through the Mecklenburg County Youth Recovery Court, Youth and Family Service or Department of Juvenile Justice.

Malachi served four weeks in jail after he was found with a friend in a stolen car. He said that the time he served in jail was “depressing.”

“When you hear your family on the other side of the phone, you just want to be home,” he said.

YAP goes through an initial assessment to determine the needs of the family and develop a plan to meet their goals — the main one is to keep the teen with the family and away from the courts to avoid further run-ins with police.

Malachi was familiar with the horse ranch before he got involved with YAP. When he was younger, he would visit the horses, said Connie Oliphant, who’s in charge of implementing programs at the ranch.

Oliphant said it took a bit of convincing to work with YAP but that her experience with Malachi has been “not bad at all.”

“Malachi assured me that he really wanted to do this and that he would really listen,” she said.

Malachi works five days per week, and his salary is paid for by YAP. At the ranch he gives water to the horses, cleans the stables and helps with their grooming and bathing.

His favorite part of the job is working with the horses.

“They keep me calm,” he said.

Prison alternative for teens

YAP also connects their youth with an advocate who does daily check-ins and gives the youth direction.

“We identify those things that’s hindering those goals from being achieved, and we work on a strategy,” said Antiwan Thomas, Malachi’s advocate.

There are currently seven advocates working for YAP in the Charlotte area.

“It’s a great opportunity to inspire youth in this community,” Thomas said.

YAP has also provided support to Malachi’s family and helped them with a recent move — sourcing beds and fans for the family.

“When we moved, we really didn’t have anything,” Malachi said.

The length of time that YAP works with each youth varies depending on the needs of each family. Those who graduate from the program often keep in touch.

“We don’t disappear from their lives after they’re done,” Thomas said.

Malachi hopes to become a horse trainer and work on breaking, training and selling horses. He’s also interested in landscaping, but not long-term.

For now, though, he will keep working for the horse ranch.

“I appreciate them just listening to me,” he said. “Everybody in that program, they’re good people.”

Already YAP has worked with over 30 youth in Charlotte, and they’re looking to expand.

The first year was a pilot program, Glover said, but now they’re trying to hire more advocates and work with more kids.

Beyond the horse farm, YAP has worked with other local businesses, like Nick and Mike Bar and Grill.

“It’s been awesome partnering with businesses here in Mecklenburg County,” Glover said.

In addition to employment, the main goal of YAP is to keep those youth placed safely in their home, which helps save the county money, Glover said.

Youth violence in Charlotte

Glover said that youth incarceration is a “big problem in our city.”

“The violence rate of our young people is really high here,” he said.

This year as of late June there were 16 homicide victims between 4 to 24 years old, sparking local pushes against violence.

The neighborhood where Big M Stables is located has borne witness to violence. In 2020, there were three killings in four days at Druid Hills off Statesville Road.

But the horse ranch is a sanctuary, Oliphant says.

She said the neighborhood kids know that when they’re on the ranch, the violence stops.

“It’s just established in the neighborhood that this is safe property,” she said.

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