Four Hugs and a Cupcake

Pete Hutchison Blog Posts 21 Comments

By: Pete Hutchison, YES Program Director

For 20 years I labored in the field of youth violence working, as a juvenile caseworker.  The work was fulfilling and I believe we were having  some positive effects on the youth, however it was clear that the young people we were involved with had developed their lifestyles to a point where it was very difficult for them to change.  And especially hard to turn towards positive behaviors.  That said it needs to be noted that I believe that every young person is worth the effort and that given the right circumstances their lives can be changed for the better.

The success rate at the Court, due to the type of young people we were working with was not particularly high.  We were often dependent on our ultimate form of correction which was incarceration.  The more severe the interventions we employed the lower the success rate.  So those that were in the greatest need of intervention when they came to us, were often those with the least likelihood of success.

It became very clear that in order to affect the kinds of positive outcomes we were hoping for, it would be necessary to intervene much earlier in their lives.   This led me to a change in careers, to a position of working in the schools with elementary age young people that were having difficulty in school, but were not identified as in need of the more formal interventions such as special education.

The day after I left the Court I went to work at a local elementary school.  On my first day at my new job I received four hugs and a cupcake.  In twenty years at the Court I never received a hug or a cupcake.  It was these acts of kindness by the young people that showed me they were both open to change, and eager to achieve positive life outcomes. 

We were able to re-engage many young people in school and get them to adopt more positive lifestyles with fewer risk behaviors not only at school, but at home and in the community as well.  This was evidenced by a drop in principal office referrals by 80% after two years and a reduction in playground disruptions.  This is an example of primary prevention at its finest.

The moral of the story is that in order to have the greatest success in helping young people find more peaceful and healthful paths we must intervene in their lives before their negative lifestyle choices are fully ingrained in their way of life.   It is with this in mind that the Youth Violence Prevention Center was established.   Its programming is based on the principals of primary prevention.  It is working with young people to engage or re-engage them into making the positive choices they are all capable of making by creating opportunities for them to be engaged in positive community development.

Comments 21

  1. This is so true. I believe we (as a society) need to work together to make a difference. I know some of my friends in middle school got in trouble many times. I know my friends were scare becaue of their probation officer. As a result, my friends had to do community hours for their punishment. They went to the local boys and girls club in Fullerton. It was very effect to them and I know it was a success to intervene early then later. Our children are future for tomorrow. We need to instil our future children at the local elementary school to make them learn and stay our of trouble. I think the best idea is to keep children busy even after school to prevent any worst situations. I know crime will always happen, but I hope for the best for children to keep busy.

  2. David,

    I agree with your thoughts. I particularly endorse your thinking about out of school time programing and would encourage you to return to our website and look at the YES project. This is an after school program which I believe will be very effective in reducing youth violence. The curriculum we use is available to you as a free download so help yourself and enjoy.


  3. I believe that when children are at a young age, people with counseling skills should intervene immediately. When children are misbehaving badly in elementary school, it is best to help those students because it could be a difficult road for them. Helping out children who are having difficulty not only in school but also at home are at risk of becoming delinquents. I do believe Pete is correct when saying intervention at a young age is vital. Parents do not want to see their children going down the wrong path. That is not what parents envision for their children. Children are the future of tomorrow. When teachers and parents see children engaging in negative lifestyles that is when someone needs to acknowledge the problem and do something about it. Some are willing to change and will reward those who have assisted them down the right path.

    1. Augusta,

      You’re absolutely correct, early intervention is key. The other part of that equation is that most young people I’ve worked with are eager to fulfill adult expectations, thus making working with them much easier. You also make a great point about the need for parents to be role models. Regardless of what we say as parents, it’s our actions that teach our children.

      Thanks for your thoughts,

  4. This story is very inspirational and admiring to know how much change one can make in a child’s life. I really anticipate to the day when I will get my 4 hugs and a cupcake from children that I know I made some change in their lives. I used to work for an after school program and I was a substitute program leader and I would be on call and go to many different schools in the school district to run the class. I remember that the site coordinators were so trained to tell me right away who was the “bad” child and to watch out for their behaviors. Even the children in my classes would be trained to let me know who were the “bad” children. I remember that I switched things around by first telling that boy that he was not a bad child to me and that he was a great kid. I would just give them a role by holding my clipboard or standing next to me and that “bad” kid behaved so well and stupendously with me that they would be happy and participate just of that little difference I made. The site coordinators would question my work, but all I would say is that the boys live up to that label and that is the last thing they need. Those boys just needed positive reinforcement and needed to be given a chance. And I was the one who gave that to them because I believed otherwise.

    1. Vanessa,

      That’s a great point, children do live up to our expectations of them and too often our expectations are not very high. I was fortunate to have an older sister who was very bright, therefore most expected me to be bright as well, which made it easier for me to achieve. (They found out soon enough that I wasn’t as bright as my sister, but that’s a different blog.) I’m also pleased to read about your afterschool experience as I’m a huge supporter of after school. You may enjoy reading about our YES program which is done in the after school.

      Thanks for your input,

  5. I strongly believe that society needs to step in and help intervene with children who are headed down a troublesome path. A couple years ago i obtained a job coaching junior high basketball. This school was located in a low class neighborhood and some of the kids on my team were headed down the wrong path in life. Throughout the season, i had to punish them for bad behavior, missing practices, bad grades, etc.. I made them run for almost two hours straight until they realized what they were doing was wrong. As the season went on I started to see a drastic change. Their progress reports stated that they were doing better in their classes, they were showing up to practice, and their disruptive behavior vanished. I believe that me punishing these kids and making them realize the rights and wrongs can help them succeed later in life. I hope i played a strong impact on their lives, and hopefully one day i can see them do something positive with their lives.

  6. Travis,

    I applaud your coaching young people. A youth coach has the ability to impact a young person at a level that is not shared with anyone else in the young persons life. The second point you make that is extremely insightful is the need of young people to exist in a structured environment, with consistent expectations. I liken the lack of structure to flying on a plane and looking out the window to see the pilot and co-pilot parachuting out of the cockpit. We too often leave young people hanging out there with no direction or the security that comes from limits. Again it’s the youth sports coach that enjoys the opportunity to enforce structure and limits without suffering the same consequences that parents live through when they try to do the same thing.

    Thanks for your thoughts,

  7. It is such an inspiring thing to read that you personally made the choice of changing your career to get involved with children at a younger age. All the research currently points to intervention at younger ages will have the greatest impact on at-risk youth. You however ,experienced this first hand and can back up this claim. One of the main issues with our juvenile justice system today is that it seems to be mostly reactive in its approach. In attempting to assist juvenile offenders with changing their lives around, it is often times comes at a point in juveniles lives where it is too late. Like seen in your first career, the delinquent juveniles may be at a point where it is much harder for them to change their lives around if they can. If the government implemented more programs which were specifically tailored to work with elementary school children, it seems that these programs would not only have the greatest success rates among the individuals at the time, but also in the years that follow. At-risk youth need to have intervention programs which focus on assisting them before they even become delinquent juveniles. Neighborhoods which are of lower economic status should especially be a priority to assist to ensure that the juveniles stay optimistic and out of trouble.

  8. Post


    I have a colleague named Dr. Sarah Stoddard, who is doing research on your idea of kids staying optimistic. Her research deals with hope, purpose and meaning. We are just looking at an intervention designed by the Harwood Group to see if we can help kids achieve the attitude you are suggesting. I would therefore encourage you to return often to the MIYVPC website so you can see how we are doing.

    Thanks for your thoughts and input,

  9. After, reading your post the one thing that came to my mind is reform. Much of what you are stating is true, and individuals should be empowered at a young age with the tools that will benefit them for the major part of their adult lives. Unfortunately it is a shame that most young individuals upon reaching courts such as the one you worked at tend to have certain outlooks that are difficult to remove, but it is not so much their fault it may actually be the fault of other various factors. Apart from being a student at CSUF, I work part time as a pool lifeguard and are in constant contact with young individuals. These young bright minds are not only constantly observing those around them, but learning how to react to certain situations. I have seen countless fights break out between individuals because of a simple game of water basketball. Being that I have been interested as to why such events happen, I have at times asked the individuals why they feel as if they need to fight with one another. The most shocking response that I ever received was that at school certain educators or individuals were telling them to handle certain situations the way they knew best. Keep in mind these are kids around the ages of seven to thirteen. I certainly agree with you that early intervention of all individuals who may be misbehaving is crucial, and in fact the results are definitely there. My only concern is what to do with those educators in more impoverished areas that have essentially given up on troublesome individuals?

  10. Post


    Good insights. I particularly liked your comment about telling young people to handle certain situations the way they knew best. I have another blog coming soon about sandlot baseball, but will mention now that when I (I’m a lot older than you are) was young we learned most, if not all of our conflict resolution skills at play. Young people today don’t have those same opportunities, most of their recreational activities are structured by adults. You have the opportunity to witness and influence the formation of these conflict resolution skills at the pool where you work. I would encourage you to offer some possible alternative methods to fighting, once the combatants have cooled down.

    Thanks again for your input,

  11. It is very sad to see that many times our judicial system focus more on incarceration rather than rehabilitation. The best way, in my opinion, is to establish more primary prevention programs such as this one because correcting a problem from its roots is better than correcting it later. Like my mother says “if you want a tree to growth straight, you must fix its branches one is young because once is old you are less likely to make it growth straight and fine”. Likewise, I believe that every young person deserves an opportunity that can help them change and become productive citizens. I must absolutely agree that sometimes teenagers are deep involved with gangs, crime, and/or other illegal activities that it becomes difficult for them to get out. I have talked to young male who is involved in a gang and I have asked him why he doesn’t get out from this gang. His answer has been “It’s hard, I just can’t”. I think that if we get involved in the child’s life at an early age, there is a greater likelihood that this child will abstain from becoming involved with gangs, crime, drugs and/or illegal activity.

  12. Roxana,

    Kudos to both you and your mom, prevention is definitely the most effective way to deal with youth violence. I do want to mention a couple of things, first I agree with your thoughts about the judiciary, but we must remember there job is incarceration to a great extent, because of where they fall on the Criminal Justice continuum. They are the last resort and it is not safe for some of the folks they see to be on the street. I’m currently working with colleagues from the University of Michigan and Michigan State University to see if by reviewing the files of those involved in homicides in our area, we can find some key factors to give the judges to look out for when they are dealing with juveniles. The second thought I have is that in speaking with young people involved in church youth groups and in gangs, their motivation for joining is very similiar. That leads me to believe that if we offer young people a positive group experience, they will be more likely to take that than join a gang.

    Again thanks for your thoughts and input,

    1. This is a very encouraging story. i believe making a positive impact in someone’s life one of the most best feelings anyone can have. I strongly believe it is important to impact a child’s life as soon as possible in order to steer them in the right direction. I have some friends that did not make the right decisions in life when we all got out of high school. I put some of the blame on myself because I feel I could have done more to impact them in a positive way. Children at a young age should get the attention and support they need to be successful in the future. Without our support they will turn to get it from places that will have negative impacts on them. I hope in my future I can have that positive influence on children’s lives, just like the feeling you have encountered with your students.

      1. Noel,

        I agree that it is important to influence children at an early age. I also think that you are to be commended for attempting to help your friends make good choices. Although peer relationships carry a great deal of influence over adolescence, it cannot over come family, cultural and community norms which an individual has lived with all of their life, so you shouldn’t feel too disheartened about the choices your friends made. I’m equally sure that as you continue along your life’s journey you will find the types of rewards that I have been fortunate enough to enjoy, particularly if you work with young people.

        Thanks for taking the time to write,

  13. The article four hogs and a cupcake proves great points. I agree with the writer that once a young person develops their lifestyle or point of view it is difficult to change them. The example that comes to mind is a drug dealer. Drug dealers know one thing, which is selling drugs. If you give the drug dealer a law abiding job, they will struggle and not adapt. A simple explanation to that example is that they only know how to sell drugs. The solution to the example is intervening at an earlier age. The writer made that aware when he said, “On my first day at my new job I received four hugs and a cupcake. In twenty years at the Court I never received a hug or a cupcake.” The reason why he got a cupcake and hugs was because younger people are not against change. Intervening when the person is younger works. The writer was able to reduce officer referrals by 80% in two year. He also reduced the number of play ground disruptions. I also agree with the writer said that, “every young person is worth the effort and that given the right circumstances their lives can be changed for the better.” When you are young and dependent on your parents it is hard to do things that interest you. If your dad is a gang member, the odds of you becoming a gang member is high. If the child is placed in a different environment, he will adapt. The solution seems easy as 1-2-3, but it is not. The problem is that we need more people who are qualified to intervene in people’s life. Qualified people are equipped to help a person, but it seems like we lack people who are qualified. The legal system is equipped to punish people after they have committed a crime, but I think that it is time to change that and intervene sooner.

    1. Adrian,

      You make two great points in your letter. The first being that the solution of poor parenting seems simple to resolve, just move the kids out of the home. In my experience at the Juvenile Court in Flint, I saw that sometimes removing kids from home was a bad choice as we took away any sense of family they may have had. I think it is often better to work with a child in their home and try to give them the skills they need to overcome questionable parenting. I have also been heartened this term to read the comments from you and your classmates. I think that it speaks well for the future and the issue you raise about the need for more qualified people to work with these young people. Clearly your class represents a large number of new qualified professionals, some of whom will hopefully work with the young people who so need your help.

      Thanks for your input,

  14. When I read this article it made me see that we as a society must change. To do this, the first step is to help the younger generation. These children are innocent and do not know any better. We must be there to make sure they choose the correct path in life. Thats why the parents have a big job part on how the next geneartion is going to be. Recently I went on a ride along with the Los ANgeles COunty Sheriffs Department. The deputy and I went to eat at a local taco stand and were waiting in line when a little girl came close to us. Deputy was in his full police uniforum and I was in my volunteer uniforum. The little girl, very sweet, was asking us questions on being a police officer. Suddenly the mother saw her daughter talking to us and she took her child away. The deputy and I heard the mother tell her daughter “Dont talk with strangers.” The deputy got mad, explaining that child need to talk with the police or fire fighters and such. That way they will feel comfortable around them. So to be clear I 100 percent argee that we should target the younger kids. Small acts of kindness right now will carry an important feeling later in life.

    1. Jorge,

      I particularly like your ride along story as it points up the fact that although we think that everyone is on the same page often they are not and that the young people we work with are often getting mixed messages. To me this goes back to the fact that we really rarely have a shared agenda as a community. That we talk about endorsing the same things but when it comes right down to it we really don’t believe in the same things. I’m sure that if asked the lady in your story would have agreed on the importance of the police, yet she treats them with a basic lack of respect and is teaching her child to do the same. It is a complicated issue that we must continue to work at.

      Thanks for your input,