Picking up trash in the local community is just one of the seemingly simple activities that makes a big difference for participants in Providence Road’s programming, which emphasizes taking ownership for bettering themselves and their surroundings. Pictured on the right are Cole Erno, co-founder and director of programs, and Jon Odenwald, co-founder and executive director. Photo by Caleb Bourke

Giving Back: Providence Road

Meaningful change in the local community starts with the individual. Sharing in that belief, Cole Erno and Jon Odenwald co-founded Providence Road Outreach Mission in 2018 to help meet the basic needs of underserved youth. By fostering nurturing relationships, character development and trauma-informed care, Providence Road is changing the trajectory of North Baton Rouge, one child at a time.

The duo started by inviting youth who had been kicked out of other programs or could not participate in community initiatives.

“We realized that there’s a well of untapped potential and leadership within these boys,” Erno explains. “And many of the concerns that community members have with the behaviors happening in North Baton Rouge are being carried out by these youth.”

First, Erno and Odenwald created a safe environment where underserved youth ages 10-16 can connect with community resources.

“We’re not a mentoring program or a needs assessment group,” Erno says. “We’re giving back by building real, long-term relationships with these kids.”

Since its inception, Erno and Odenwald have been trying to answer the question: “How do we build connections with youths who have been so scarred by relationships?”

One way is the organization’s unique cultivation model, which puts the core needs of underserved boys at the center of the engagement model that guides its programming. By focusing on community involvement, physical education, affirmations and literacy, the group aims to help participants develop the soft skills necessary to be good stewards of their families, community and futures. Weekly service projects, like picking up trash around town, change their attitudes by opening the door to a sense of ownership.

Cole Erno says Providence Road would love more opportunities for their youth to volunteer. “We’re building a road that’s a two-way street, and we want our youth to continue to give back,” he notes. Photo by Louie Bernard

“We want to show them that just because you’re in need doesn’t mean you can’t give a helping hand to others in need or even a community in need,” Erno explains. “This builds character and teaches them the value of a self-sustaining work ethic.”

Youth in poverty are often in survival mode. Helping them shift from that mindset means meeting their basic needs. Providence Road provides the safe space necessary for these kids to learn what it looks like to receive greatly.

When Erno and Odenwald asked participants to write down as many affirmations as they could think of in one minute, most of them handed in blank papers. “Then, we asked them to do the same thing but with belittling statements, and most were able to write down at least 15,” Erno says. The exercise highlights the alarming fact that some children have never received words of affirmation but are accustomed to disparaging comments.

“It’s up to us as a community to affirm these youth and find things they’re good at,” he says. “The kids we work with are highly intelligent, but they’ve been born into an environment where needs and survival take the place of education.”

In another exercise, the boys were asked to define a list of words often used in daily conversation, including marvelous, awkward and gravel. Again, many handed in blank papers or needed help to define them accurately.

“We read books far above their reading level, and it might take 45 minutes to get through a page and with a list of 30 words we’ve had to define, but it’s helping,” Erno says. “This builds that desire for curiosity and makes them more comfortable asking questions like defining words that they don’t know.”

While Providence Road programs are altered to best suit the needs of the boys involved at any given time, the focus has always remained on fostering and nurturing relationships within the group.

“We’re the first people giving them words of affirmation and speaking to them in a way that when you give affirmations, they believe you,” Erno says. “Showing up consistently has built trust within the group, and now there’s a lot less chaos.”

Thanks to the Providence Road programming, many of the participants are no longer in survival mode, and they’re adequately equipped to realize their full potential. While the road ahead remains long, the co-founders feel that they have hit their stride. They’ve seen lives change, and one at a time, they are breaking down the hold of systemic patterns of destruction.