The outreach nonprofit Roca Baltimore is extending its work beyond city borders to Essex and Dundalk young men whose lives have been shaken by violence and incarceration.

Equipped with $3 million in state and federal funds, Roca, Inc.’s Baltimore branch is bolstering its work in the city while also gaining a foothold in southeastern Baltimore County, which has been a hotspot for violent crime in recent years.

Its expansion is part of an initiative announced last year by County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr.’s administration to revive the downtown Essex area through infrastructure repairs, streetscape improvements, pest eradication and grant funding for nonprofits that serve the southeastern area.

“We are working actively to fulfill our obligation to keep our residents safe in their communities — and most especially our young people” in the southeastern county, which has historically faced “unique public safety challenges,” Olszewski said during a news conference outside the Stembridge Community Center in Essex Friday morning.

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Roca, which came to Baltimore in 2018, is known for its tenacity to connect with teenagers and young adults who have been netted by the criminal justice system and at high risk of being involved in violent crime. Roca’s four-year program aims to arm people ages 16 to 24 with life and emotional management skills, educational classes and transitional employment, all with the aim of breaking the cycle of incarceration by employing cognitive behavioral therapy.

The program is rooted in behavior change, said Kurtis Palermo, executive vice president of Roca Maryland. They guide young men to learn “critical life-saving skills for real life situations, whether you get in an argument, whether you’re at work or whether you see someone you have an issue with on the street,” Palermo said during the news conference.

“It is in those moments that these young men can truly keep themselves out of harm’s way and stay safe, alive and out of jail,” Palermo said.

Along with Dundalk, Essex has seen the county’s highest murder rate. Nearly a third of the county’s 22 homicides occurred in Essex or Dundalk within the first nine months of the year, according to Baltimore County Police Department crime reports.

As part of the expansion, Roca’s Impact Institute is expected to train Baltimore County police in how to use trauma-informed strategies to better engage with young men who experience violence. The Impact Institute partners with law enforcement agencies and community organizations in a typically months-long “intensive coaching approach,” according to Roca.

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Roca is starting off small, with two county-based positions; it’s not the kind of work that can be rushed, Palermo said. The first step is to assess where services are most needed — a determinant factor as the nonprofit considers where to establish its county office as planned, Palermo said.

“We’re very mindful of not doing too much at once,” Palermo, who runs operations at Roca Baltimore, said in an interview. The expansion into the southeastern county is the chapter’s first extension beyond the city.

“It took almost five years to go from city to county,” Palermo noted. “We want to be intentional.”

Still, Roca is already exploring other funding sources to sustain the program’s county presence after its $3 million gift is divvied between the expansion and its city operations, he said, adding: “We’re very cautious not to start something we can’t finish.”

Calvin Monroe, who will manage operations in the county, said outside the community center that Roca helps “the change that I know is possible.”

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“Sometimes, we’re the only people in their lives that are there consistently,” Monroe, a Baltimore City native, said.

Monroe will continue his boots-on-the ground outreach that he did as a Roca Baltimore youth worker.

While Baltimore City tries to quell violent crime that’s propelled the city beyond 300 homicides each year since 2015, its surrounding suburbs “can also see the effect of that because people are so mobile,” Palermo said, adding that the city-county line has no bearing on young men in either jurisdiction who are perpetrating violence crime or are victimized by it.

Roca Baltimore’s 30-or-so staffers go to lengths to find those at highest risk; through public defenders and police, data analysis of felony arrests of people in certain age groups and where they may live, paying attention to some minors’ progression through juvenile court, communicating through written letters, visiting detention centers — and lots of door-knocking, Palermo said.

Each man who agrees to outreach workers’ dogged attempts to contact them — it took an average of a dozen times to reach men in the program’s first year — is signing up for an intensive yearslong endeavor to change the trajectory of their lives.

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“We’re not a mentor group,” Palermo said. “We’re not a life coaching program; we are a behavioral change program that’s working with the young men who are at the center of urban violence.”

According to Roca, 84% of the young men who have participated in the program for at least two years have had no new arrests.

Republican former state Del. Pat McDonough, who is running against Olszewski, a Democrat, for the county executive seat, said he’s “not a big supporter” of the nonprofit.

McDonough said Roca has made little impact on public safety in the city, and disparages the number of men who have participated in the program.

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“That’s like shooting an elephant with a pellet gun,” McDonough said, adding that he would create a “community service” to force young people who have been involved in violent crime to “clean hospitals, parks and roadsides.”

“They’re gonna do work and they’re not gonna get paid for it,” he said.

Since its launch, Roca Baltimore has worked directly with 445 young men, according to the release, and Palermo said case workers are currently handling 231 participants. They’re brought into the program on a rolling basis; the first cohort of young men who finished the four-year program graduated in September. One of the nine graduates was hired as a Roca caseworker, Palermo said.

Palermo said Roca may also work through Baltimore County school resource officers to find eligible men. While the student participation depends on how many referrals they receive, Monroe expects they may start out with 40 to 60 young people in the county.

“Our ultimate goal is just helping these young men to understand that there is something different for them,” Palermo said. “And we’re gonna to be here to support them, to hold them accountable, and to help them navigate something that is very uncomfortable and unknown.”

WYPR reporter John Lee contributed to this article.

This story has been updated to correct data about Roca's effectiveness cited from an inaccurate Baltimore County news release.

Taylor DeVille covered Baltimore County government for The Baltimore Banner with a focus on the County Executive, County Council, accountability and quality of life issues affecting suburban residents. Before joining The Banner, Taylor covered Baltimore County government and breaking news for The Baltimore Sun.

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