Changing Lives for 43 Years


Grow Detroit’s Young Talent Summer Job participants plant crops in the Life Directions Hoop House Garden at Western International High School

Forty years ago, Detroit was known as the “Murder Capital of the World.” Fr. John Phelps was presiding at funeral after funeral after funeral – most for young people caught in the city’s rampant violence. When he’d simply just had enough, he decided to do something about it: Life Directions.

In the last four decades, Life Directions has taught more than 168,000 atrisk young people to peacefully solve their problems and make better life decisions. “Peace building is our language,” explained Fr. John, who serves as president and CEO of the organization. “Life Directions roots young people in the right values. They learn common sense life skills that enable them to turn obstacles into opportunity and take responsibility for their futures.”

Life Directions works with at-risk 8th graders to ensure they make it through 10th grade and graduate. More than 60% of those who drop out of high school do so during or before 9th grade. Since 1974, more than 85,000 students and young adults in Detroit have received support and reinforcement through Life Directions’ unique “peers inspiring peers” approach. “It’s all about social and emotional learning, resiliency and perseverance. Life Directions is basically the mother you didn’t have,” Fr. John explained. “The goal is to help young people to create their own positive opportunities, plan for their futures and make permanent commitments to a strong family life.”

Students at work on the school campus

Life Directions works in Detroit Public Schools through a Memo of Understanding and collaborates closely with teachers, who select student participants and evaluate Life Directions’ work. A Continuous Improvement Plan ensures continued innovation and maintains Life Directions’ 78% effective rate (as measured by attendance, improved grades and teacher satisfaction).

About 25 percent of the students at Western International High School, the most culturally diverse comprehensive high school within the Detroit Public School System, participate in Life Directions. Participants must agree to complete a 12-session process that helps them grow socially and emotionally and become self-motivated. They often get involved in their community, as well as other Life Directions programs.

Tomás was involved in the Peer Mentor Program, which includes achieving 10th and 11th graders who are recruited to complete the Peer Motivation Program and trained as peer mentors. They spend time after school mentoring 8th graders from nearby Earhart and Munger Middle Schools to prepare them for a positive transition to high school. Peer mentors are supported by trained adult coaches in the neighborhood and business communities.

Tomás mentored Alejandro, who was so afraid when he began attending Western that he was eating lunch in the restroom. When Tomás found him there, he invited Alejandro to join him in the cafeteria, and the young man was on his way to fitting in – and staying in school.

Early on, Life Directions leaders recognized that at-risk youth neither respect nor listen to their grandparents, who are too often filling parental roles. When they realized the need for positive relationships with elders, the Peer-to-Peer Program was born. Life Directions now has three Peer-to-Peer Programs that work together to instill positive values in students, which result in better relationships in families as well as in neighborhoods.

The Peer Motivation Program brings together achieving high school students and at-risk students to explore the issues they confront, their common challenges and the consequences of their actions. They also discuss ways to be responsible. The program operates 40 percent in the school and 60 percent in the neighborhood, where students get involved in community service projects and inter-generational programs to reduce violence. “Kids learn conflict resolution and values by role playing and discussions. A wise person teaches you to solve your own problems,” Fr. John explained.

Students also can join Peace Builders Youth Boards, which plan activities, field trips and family events, and complete service projects. Recent programs include a bicycle fundraiser with Cyberville in Northville, a field trip to the Detroit Zoo, and planting a summer garden at Western with a grant from the Skillman Foundation.

The Neighborhood Enrichment Program inspires young adults 18 to 35 years old and adult volunteers older than 35 to break the cycle of violence in the community through peer outreach and inter-generational events with youth involved in the Peer Motivation and Peer Mentor programs. Life Directions also offers financial literacy for parents, home repair assessments, mortgage information, credit repair and bilingual help.

“I owe them my life,” said Annette Howard, who now serves as project director for Life Directions. She was part of the Youth Circle in high school, and learned communication skills, how to control her emotions, and build trust within a group. Perhaps most important, she learned how to listen. “I learned it was okay to be angry; just don’t destroy yourself,” she said. “I was inspired by my peers. The soft skills I learned were so deeply rooted in me that when I was 50 years old I still looked back on Life Directions.”

Those soft skills served her well in her careers as a probation officer, counselor and foster parent. She fostered three teenage sisters originally from Central America who had been rescued from a human trafficking operation in Texas. Authorities quickly shuttled the sisters to safety in Michigan. Annette eventually adopted all three girls. She taught them the Life Directions skills she had learned, and is proud that two of them finished school. “They had only finished the fourth grade because going to school wasn’t popular where they came from. It took great perseverance to graduate, but they did it,” she said.

Life Directions is changing lives. Statistically, 93 percent of participating 8th graders finish high school on time, 74 percent take responsibility for their futures, and 68 percent report that they consider the consequences of their actions before it is too late. No incidents of violence have ever been associated with the program. Life Directions was replicated in New Orleans, San Antonio, Tucson and Macon County, OR, but since the 2008 economic downturn, it is active only in two cities: Detroit, and Chicago, where Fr. Tat Hoang and Van Bensett direct the program. Visit for more information.

Adapted from “Life Directions teaches at-risk Detroit kids to make the right choices in life” by Marge Sorge , Detroit Unspun

by Kristine Stremel, denverlink march/april 2017