‘Coordinating’ for kids, Byxbee offers town a helping hand

For years now, Jenny Byxbee has focused on Greenwich youth, making sure that they are well taken care of as children and helping them stay out of trouble when they get older. — Ken Borsuk photo

For years now, Jenny Byxbee has focused on Greenwich youth, making sure that they are well taken care of as children and helping them stay out of trouble when they get older.
— Ken Borsuk photo

Throughout her career, Jenny Byxbee has made it her focus to help young people. That’s what she did in New Canaan when she headed its teen center and it’s what she does now as the youth services coordinator for the United Way of Greenwich.

For the past eight years, Ms. Byxbee has worked with Greenwich’s youth. That means helping out the youngest kids with something as basic as making sure they have supervised attention after school, and helping out older kids who make mistakes but shouldn’t have to be worried about paying for them for the rest of their lives.

Helping out kids in trouble with the law has been the focus of the Greenwich Juvenile Review Board that she started with former Chief of Police David Ridberg, back when he was a captain, and Sgt. Mark Zuccarella. At the time they started it, Ms. Byxbee said she was just getting her feet wet and this was called the “Greenwich Avenue initiative” to deal with youth getting into misdemeanor trouble on the Avenue.

“These kids were getting into trouble and we didn’t know what to do with them,” Ms. Byxbee said. “There wasn’t enough for them to do in town. So we started programming activities around town and close to the Avenue to redirect children. I didn’t know if we could do teen programming that was cool enough to engage them but we saw the ways it was working and also all the ways kids were getting involved with high-risk behaviors.”

Ms. Byxbee worked on this program with Erin Montague, who at the time was a Greenwich High School student but today is the United Way of Greenwich’s Junior United Way adult adviser. But the work didn’t stop when the incidents on Greenwich Avenue decreased. Instead, concerned about the dangerous things kids were getting into, the review board grew out of it.

“These kids were still drinking and still doing petty larcenies and we didn’t know what to do,” Ms. Byxbee said. “How do we allow these kids to learn without subjecting them to lifelong consequences? We have all this support in town. We have these great agencies. How do we connect them to the kids who need them the most? And we’ve been working on this ever since.”

Under the rules of the Juvenile Review Board, the police refer to Ms. Byxbee the cases of first time offenders who meet with her before they appear in court. During that meeting, plans are put together and, once the courts sign the paperwork, a panel is convened to reflect specific issues to respond to. If a kid is caught drinking, someone with a substance abuse problem is on the panel. If they are in trouble with vandalism, then there are representatives from places like the Boys & Girls Club who, in the words of Ms. Byxbee, can give them something more positive to do.

“I try to convene a panel that will be the most supportive and helpful to the child,” Ms. Byxbee said. “We come up with a plan and then Kids in Crisis does the case management, and if the kids complete their contract I have a shredder and confidential records go into there. But if they don’t complete then they go back to court.”

This past year there was only one child who had to go back to court, according to Ms. Byxbee, out of 11 who were eligible for this program. Overall there have been 70 since the program began and the cases have grown more complicated as the relationship between the police department and Ms. Byxbee has grown and strengthened. She says the data has shown the recidivism rate has decreased.

“I’d like to think I treat each child and family like I’d want my own to be treated,” Ms. Byxbee said. “I’ve learned in the time I’ve been here that all children are vulnerable to making bad choices and it doesn’t matter if you live in Cos Cob or Byram or Riverside.”

Ms. Byxbee’s duties in town mean a lot of work with the Greenwich Youth Services Bureau, which has offices all over the state and is designed to bring together various agencies to respond to issues dealing with youth. Here in Greenwich that means agencies like Kids in Crisis, Family Centers, the Child Guidance Center, the Boys & Girls Club and more. Ms. Byxbee is the one working behind the scenes to bring them all together as well as assist them with grant writing and setting up programs for them.

“We’re kind of on call in a unique way that no one else is because we work on behalf of the town and the United Way,” Ms. Byxbee said. “This fall we saw an increase in kindergartners all over town and the problem is where do those kindergartners go after school. The phone started ringing in early September at the Byram Archibald Neighborhood Center and they had a wait list. These kids are four and five years old and too little to go to the Boys & Girls Club, which starts at first grade. Where were they supposed to go? I convened a committee, got together all the different agencies like the YMCA, the YWCA , the town’s Department of Social Services to all the school principals and we were able to come up with different ideas. What we did was move some of the older kids [from the neighborhood center] to the Boys & Girls Club to open up space for the younger kids. This was for about 30 kids altogether and giving each kid a place to go where they’re supervised is critical.”

The mother of two young daughters, Ms. Byxbee admits that she originally thought that becoming a mother would have slowed her down a little bit. But it’s done the opposite.

“It’s made me feel more of a sense of urgency,” Ms. Byxbee said. “I keep on thinking what I would do if my four- or five-year-old child was sitting on a bench after school. I’ve felt more than ever that we have to act and do it quickly to respond to youth issues when they come up.”

All of this makes for a very full agenda for Ms. Byxbee and others at the United Way and well as other youth groups in town. They also have to focus on the Reading Champions program, the Junior United Way and getting a wiffle ball field up in town, a project that has another home run derby fund-raiser set for July 8 and a tournament on July 20. And this is not just a project where the United Way wants to do all the work. They want the kids to take ownership of finding a permanent home for wiffle ball in town.

“We have to find what is the teachable moment of all of this,” Ms. Byxbee said. “We have to teach them how to get the field that they want, and the way to go about it is to make them be a part of it. I never played wiffle ball before and I was horrible when I took some swings at the temporary field a few weeks ago, but it’s really looking at what the kids want and setting them up to succeed.”

Ms. Byxbee is also looking towards new projects, like one that she hopes will help kids get good summer jobs so they get work experience and valuable mentorships.

The Youth Services Board and Ms. Byxbee herself recently received some high praise from First Selectman Peter Tesei. At a meeting late last month for the Board of Selectmen, Mr. Tesei discussed his recent meeting with the Youth Services Board and praised her for her enthusiasm and for acting as a “bridge” between local organizations supporting youth and focusing on teens who have gotten into trouble to make sure they stay on a good path.

He singled out the work of the Juvenile Review Board for its positive impact keeping kids out of the judicial system for youthful mistakes as well as the overall attention paid to helping them stay safe.

“There’s been a lot of work through the years trying to deal with at-risk behaviors and the group has had the realization that while the goal is to eradicate it, the reality is that it isn’t going to happen and you have to implement safety measures so that young people can stay alive,” Mr. Tesei said.

The United Way and Ms. Byxbee are continuing their work both in Greenwich’s schools and in the community, and they are always looking for people to help. Inspiring volunteerism and involvement is another one of the United Way’s missions and there are ongoing efforts to keep information flowing so that the schools and local groups know Ms. Byxbee is there to work with them and ensure that the support net for youth is firmly in place.

“I see every kid as an individual,” Ms. Byxbee said. “I don’t sum them up based on their identity, where they come from and whether they’re into sports or the arts. I try to look at the child for the child regardless and try to see their potential. A pet peeve of mine is when people ask me which children are at risk. All children are at risk to being vulnerable and making bad choices. There’s stress. There’s depression. There are parents going through divorces. It doesn’t matter what your income level is. There are people who need help regardless. That’s something we can forget. It doesn’t matter where you are in town. All children need love and be made to feel safe.”

 

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