JJDP Youth Drone Program

Up and Away: 4-H Drone Program Helps JJDP Youth Reach New Heights

Author: Matt Debnam

A new pilot program (no pun intended) is opening up a world of possibilities for justice-involved and at-risk youth in Wake County – equipping them with the skills to fly unmanned aerial vehicles.

Hosted by the Wake County Cooperative Extension Service, the Wake County 4-H SPACES and 4-H SPACESTOO programs are a pair of juvenile crime prevention programs funded by the Wake County Juvenile Crime Prevention Council and Wake County government. A number of the youth served in the program were referred by court counselors or team members in the juvenile justice system.

Commonly referred to as drones, unmanned aerial vehicles are now used in a wide variety of applications – from military reconnaissance missions to mapping real estate to delivering medication and groceries to your front door. 

“We wanted to bring this experience to kids who are involved with the juvenile justice system and those we want to prevent from becoming involved with that system,” said Wake County 4-H Youth Development Supervisor Charlenzo Belcher. “Drones are a new technology and there’s a promising future in it for kids both educationally and career-wise. It has proven to be a very effective approach.”

Man showing off large drone

“We want to give youth a chance to know that there is more than they see in their neighborhood and that they have opportunities to grow,” said JJDP Community Programs Area Consultant David Carter, who works closely with JCPC-funded programs in central North Carolina. “4-H Spaces has been on the cutting edge of this type of programming.”

While 4-H SPACES served youth ages 12-15 one week, 4-H SPACESTOO offered a similar experience for youth ages 16-18 during the second week. Both age groups began the week with an overview of how drones work, rules of the sky, and how drones can be used in a variety of applications – instruction that is interlaced with hands-on training and flight. 

On Wednesday of each week, the group made a special trip to Elizabeth City State University, which offers one of the premiere unmanned aircraft programs in the state. During their visit, students had the opportunity to hear from experts in the field and experience a full-motion flight simulator. As the weeklong camp concluded, each youth received a certificate of completion, returning home with a new skill and, in some cases, new ideas about what their future might hold.

“We had a couple of young people for whom this opened up some doors in their minds about something different they could do as an adult,” said Belcher. “Using these experiential learning activities, we’re not just in the classroom talking to them – we’re helping youth build critical thinking and decision-making skills and enhancing their life-skills. Allowing them to have some introspection into themselves is one of the top things we seem to get from the young people who completed the program.”

The 4-H SPACES program is but one example of hundreds of JCPC-funded community programs throughout the state that are making a positive impact on North Carolina’s youth. In many cases, these programs are exactly what young people need at a time when they’ve made mistakes and need to reevaluate their direction in life.

“When the Wright Brothers came to North Carolina for their first flight, it had to be the right timing and environment,” reflected Carter. “For youth to be inspired and to be successful, we have to give them the right resource, at the right time, for the right kid.”

The Division of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention allocates approximately $28 million annually to local Juvenile Crime Prevention Councils across all 100 counties. These locally appointed councils work hand in hand with the JJDP Community Programs section to provide funding and oversight to local community programs that help foster better outcomes for justice-involved and at-risk youth. Learn more about the work of Juvenile Crime Prevention Councils here: Juvenile Crime Prevention Councils | NC DPS.

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