COMPASS Youth Collaborative CEO Jacquelyn Santiago Nazario
COMPASS Youth Collaborative CEO Jacquelyn Santiago Nazario listens during the dedication of her organization’s new youth center on Ledyard Street in Hartford’s south end on Friday, June 24, 2022. Credit: Doug Hardy / CTNewsJunkie

HARTFORD – The COMPASS Youth Collaborative opened a new youth center Friday in the city’s south end with a celebration and a commitment to continue helping high-risk youth heal through cognitive behavior therapy focused on trauma, and conflict resolution.

Standing at the rear entrance of the organization’s new office on Ledyard Street, COMPASS CEO Jacquelyn Santiago Nazario told the gathering that 89% of the roughly 200 youth in the program have lost either a family member or a close friend to gun violence. As a result, Santiago Nazario said, those young people were suffering from trauma, which she described as a state of fear that won’t go away, and which often leads young people away from good decisions.

To help intervene, COMPASS’s staff of 30 includes 12 Peacebuilders who are out on the city’s streets to meet young people and to try to steer them toward better outcomes. Santiago Nazario said that sometimes peacebuilders will hear about a shooting and hurry over to the hospital to try to prevent retaliatory violence between members of the families of the young people who have been shot. She said peacebuilders have training in conflict resolution, and trauma-based cognitive behavior therapy, and are in constant communication.

According to COMPASS staff, peacebuilders are equipped with smartphones through which they use a case management application – which was developed in house – to detail their interactions with youth. A COMPASS staff member said that peacebuilders added a couple hundred entries in the first month of the app’s availability, but in a recent month peacebuilders uploaded about 3,000 entries into the system.

Aside from meeting young people in the streets to get them moving forward in more positive ways, Santiago Nazario said COMPASS also works with police and the Department of Correction in the Hartford jail, where they can intervene in some cases to try to keep young people out of prison.

COMPASS Youth Collaborative staff gather for a group photo
COMPASS Youth Collaborative staff gather for a group photo during the dedication of their new youth center on Ledyard Street in Hartford’s south end on Friday, June 24, 2022. Credit: Doug Hardy / CTNewsJunkie

The new office on Ledyard Street replaces space in the leasing office of the Sheldon Oaks apartment complex, which the organization had been sharing with the property management team. That space was too small for COMPASS’s needs.

Since becoming CEO in 2019, the organization says Santiago Nazario has raised more than $7 million in new funding for the organization, including $350,000 in state funding this year, as well as federal money, and also grant funding from the Dalio Foundation, the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, and several corporate donors including Pratt & Whitney.

Among the speakers Friday was state Sen. Cathy Osten, who co-chairs the legislature’s Appropriations Committee with Rep. Toni Walker of New Haven. Osten, who said she comes from a tiny town of 3,000 and represents rural eastern Connecticut, said she spent 21 years working with the Department of Correction in seven different facilities.

She stressed that towns and smaller cities face the same issues as Hartford.

Sen. Cathy Osten speaks at the opening of the COMPASS Youth Collaborative's new youth center
Sen. Cathy Osten speaks at the opening of the COMPASS Youth Collaborative’s new youth center on Ledyard Street in Hartford’s south end on Friday, June 24, 2022. Credit: Doug Hardy / CTNewsJunkie

“When people say that this issue is only in Hartford, that’s not actually true,” Osten told the gathering. “It’s actually true across this state that we have issues relative to trauma. And that’s why Jackie and I are so much in sync with each other because if you’re not going to deal with the trauma that people experience, you’re really not going to take care of the underlying issue. That is truly the underlying issue.”

Osten said she has been in lock-step with Appropriations Committee co-chair Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, and said she also spoke to Sen. John Fonfara, D-Hartford, about COMPASS. She said that she wanted to put real dollars in the budget for COMPASS because of the important work they are doing, and that Fonfara agreed.

During her career at the DOC, Osten said, she would often see people leave incarceration but come back shortly thereafter.

“And I always said there has to be a better way than what we’re doing today,” Osten said of her thoughts at the time. She said that we “cannot allow that to happen to people who have capacity, who are smart, who could rule the world if we only gave them the opportunity. And that is truly the issue here.”

Osten said that Santiago Nazario recognizes that trauma is the key.

“And without dealing with that trauma we really do an injustice to people who are trying to move ahead,” Osten said. “And we need those people to move ahead. We need those people to take the place of leadership.”

Osten said she was thrilled and excited to see the group in attendance Friday at the opening of the new youth center, where several politicians and advocates spoke before a ribbon-cutting.

“We all need to address this issue of trauma. And without addressing that issue, we are just throwing money at the wall,” Osten said. “I think this is a perfect spot to start, but hold each and every one of us accountable to make sure we are putting the real dollars in the budget that will make a real difference.”