Relentless Outreach: Roca’s Pursuit to Help Baltimore’s High-Risk Youth

Roca doesn’t believe in lost causes. And they never call off the search.

Roca holds firm to the belief that no individual is beyond redemption. Their mission? To seek out those many deem unreachable. In just a few years since its 2018 introduction to Baltimore, this distinct anti-violence outreach and intervention program has identified and intervened with hundreds of the city’s most at-risk young men. These are individuals deeply entrenched in urban crime, carrying the weight of trauma, who are often the most probable to face shootings, suffer gunshot wounds, or encounter felony charges. Instead of allowing these young men to fall into the tragic cycles of jail, injury, or death, Roca offers them a life-altering alternative. This tireless effort is what the organization proudly labels as “relentless outreach.”

“There’s a whole lot I can’t take credit for,” Roca founder and CEO Molly Baldwin says of the buzz phrase. “There are people around here who are a lot more talented than me – which is the point! But I think ‘relentless outreach’ was my signature, and it’s become baked into everything that we do. It’s probably a very polite way of saying, ‘pain in the you-know-what.’”

When Roca is alerted to a young person in crisis – a lion’s share of referrals hail from the Baltimore Police Department – the team goes to work. Staffers, clearly identified in Roca gear, show up at the initiate’s home, knocking on the front door. If at first, they don’t succeed – as is frequently the case – the pursuit continues. Roca stakes out local hangouts, engages young men on the streets, trails them to the corner store, whatever (and whenever and wherever) it takes. Bottom line: They don’t stop knocking until they’ve established trust and ushered a new recruit into Roca’s site in Baltimore. 

Put simply, “relentless outreach” is about not giving up on people who have already given up on themselves countless times over.

And it works.

In Fiscal Year 2023, alone, Roca Baltimore served 417 young people – 341 of whom remained active with the organization at the close of the quarter. According to an end-of-year report, of the 115 participants who had been actively enrolled in Roca Baltimore for 24 months or longer by the end of the fiscal year, 83 (72%) had no new arrests and 108 (94%) had no new incarcerations.

“It’s really clear that there are groups of young people out there who are marginalized and feeling left out and are not going to show up to programs or jobs. They don’t trust people,” Baldwin says. “Relentless outreach is really about building a road to those people. We’re going to let you know, ‘Look, you matter. We’re going to find you, we’re going to get to you, and if we think you need Roca – you’re in. And we don’t really care if you want help building these skills. Once you have the skills, then you can decide.’”

The Arrival

Baldwin first started working with young people on juvenile justice issues as a teen living in Baltimore.

“I grew up here,” she says. “When I was quite young, I met many people in the city. And I kind of knew that the world was different for different groups of people.”

At 16, Baldwin left Baltimore for the Northeast. After graduating from UMass Amherst, she spearheaded a teen pregnancy prevention and youth development initiative in Chelsea, Massachusetts.

It wouldn’t be long before Roca branched out on its own.

The organization’s name, translated from Spanish, means “rock.” As in, foundation, stability, and support. Interestingly, it is perhaps also the most important thing standing between Baltimore’s highest-risk youth and a very, very hard place.

“When we started Roca – Oh, a long time ago – we were committed to helping young people who were left out and didn’t have a place to belong. We were paying attention to those who didn’t have the support they needed and couldn’t engage in other programs. We built an incredible team over time. We did lots of things, learned lots of things, and, hopefully, we’ve gotten better as we’ve gone along. And very focused.”

Roca’s focus was narrowed, refined, and reforged back in Chelsea in 2011, following a series of processes that led Roca to move beyond an “all things for all people” approach and adopt a single-service intervention model using behavioral health practices designed for high-risk youth, aged 16-24, instead.

Thirty years after Roca’s doors first opened in Chelsea, MA, Baldwin brought their unique brand of intervention back to her home state at the request of the city. But Roca’s Baltimore introduction – the intervention model’s first replication since the nonprofit’s inception – had little to do with her roots here, and everything to do with a need. 

“We wanted to take the work with these young men to a different place. We thought we were onto some general strategies that could be adapted elsewhere. We’d done a lot of work in Massachusetts and worked with a lot of young people and wanted to go to another place to sort of test it, if you will. Not only a different environment, but also a different context, a different state, a different set of politics. We didn’t go back because I grew up here, but because it mattered.”

The partnership, Baldwin says, manifested as a result of the extraordinary generosity and faith of Baltimore’s business community and foundations in an effort to disrupt cycles of violence, poverty, and incarceration. And while the guard has changed during the five years Roca has been patrolling the Baltimore streets, the organization’s impact has only grown more thorough, persistent, and promising.

Although the city’s overall murder rate increased by 9% between 2018-2021, homicides committed by young people under the age of 25 dropped by 7%, homicide victims under 25 years old dropped by 8%, and non-fatal shooting victims under 25 dropped by 3% – all individuals, incidentally, within Roca’s target age group.

Baldwin is quick to point out that the strides Roca Baltimore has made thus far are testimony to the Baltimore team, itself, led by Executive Vice President of Roca Maryland, Kurtis Palermo. Palermo got his start with Roca back in 2013 as part of an AmeriCorps fellowship program and ultimately segued into the role of Assistant Director at Roca Springfield in Massachusetts. Today, Palermo and a team of youth workers and front-line staff work hard to impart change, fueled by the firm belief that it is possible. 

“It’s been an enormous privilege,” Baldwin says of the work. “And probably the greatest thing is that the team barely needs me. But that’s the point. They’ve been very courageous. The work is very hard, as you know. It’s dangerous. And really important.”

Unfortunately, Baldwin says, it’s an uphill battle, as we currently live in a country overrun with firearms.

“You can get a gun easier than you can get a meal. And that’s a problem,” she says. “And I think for too long, people have been very disaffected, which makes things very, very dangerous.”

The Hope

Trauma is at the core of violence.

The young men that Roca reaches out to have been hurt, dejected, damaged, and thrown out. They’ve seen friends, family gunned down. Many have been shot themselves or have shot others. They feel cornered, isolated, hopeless, and despite outward signs of bravado – afraid.

Almost all of the men served by Roca Baltimore in its first four years were familiar with trauma, experiencing a total of six events, on average, by the time they had enrolled. In so many instances, fight-or-flight was all they had ever known.

“We know that if you’ve been highly traumatized or are suffering from trauma, from violence, that you can get stuck in your bottom brain. And we think that’s what’s going on with a lot of young people on the street,” Baldwin explains. “They’re not rationalizing the way that you and I are. If I’m on the street, and I’m stuck in this place, and I feel danger – actual or perceived – and you look at me, that threat is very real.”

To interrupt this cycle, Roca employs Cognitive Behavioral Theory, an emotional regulation approach, or CBT. Their signature program, known as Rewire, was developed in conjunction with Massachusetts General Hospital. It helps to teach youth stuck in survival mode to access the “thinking” part of their brain before giving in to impulsive behavior.

Over two years, Rewire CBT helps these young men to build the mental muscle that allows them to take just an 8-12 second pause between what they think and feel – and what they do.

“We’re teaching these young people emotional regulation skills so they can heal,” Baldwin says. “They learn to access the thinking part of their brain and begin to understand they have more choices – and then they make those choices.”

However, Roca’s CBT influence doesn’t end with the organization’s youth participants. Rewiring the city for hope requires all involved parties to take that pause – to think before reacting. And Baltimore’s law enforcement officers also understand what it is like to be on either side of a gun. They also know trauma.

Roca recently began utilizing the same brain science that is so effective with victims and perpetrators of the worst violence in Baltimore to train the city’s police force.

“It’s called Rewire4,” Baldwin says. “Eight hours of in-the-room training with police correctional officers, with six months of texting follow-up three times a week.”

To date, Baldwin says, approximately half of the department has been trained in Rewire4, allowing them to remain vigilant while simultaneously remaining cognizant. The hope? That the “us against them” mentality dissipates, allowing room for new relationships to form.

The Bonds

Roca’s arrival in Baltimore came on the heels of both societal unrest and political upheaval: the killing of Freddie Gray, the implementation of the ensuing Consent Decree, and the Gun Trace Task Force investigation were fresh in the minds and souls of its residents and its workers.

Healing – and change – at a community level transcends any one individual. It requires building new bonds where before only restraints existed. Roca intentionally partners with police departments and other systems – probation, parole, correctional institutes – that directly intersect with urban violence, and strives to provide them with common ground.

“Our most longstanding and effective relationship in Baltimore has been with the Baltimore Police, which is as it should be,” Baldwin says. “Good cops want safety. They want people to live. They want to help young people. And a lot of young people at the center of urban violence, you know, are dealing with cops and other systems more than they are anyone else.”

“You can’t magically keep a young person safe,” Baldwin continues. “And you can’t help them choose to stop criminal behavior overnight. So, this relationship with the police is critical.”

Connecting with Baltimore’s highest-risk individuals is rewarding work, says Baldwin. But it’s also a never-ending chase. In November, the organization expanded into Baltimore County, extending its reach, and knocking on many, many more doors.

“It’s all about building a relationship that is safe to help them learn these Rewire skills,” she says. “And then, of course, we have our center. We run work crews. We work on all of the court stuff, the parenting stuff – all of which is important. But this group of kids is not one that readily runs off by themselves [to get involved]. So, we spend a lot of time out in the community. And we need those partners to literally wrap around these young people and let them know, ‘Hey, people are paying attention.’”

The Future

In May, while celebrating its 35th anniversary, Roca opened its permanent residence in Baltimore – a two-story, 15,000-square-foot facility in the Mount Vernon neighborhood.

So, where does Baldwin see Roca’s future 35 years down the road?

“Oh, that’s beyond my pay grade,” she sighs. “I wish I could tell you we wouldn’t need Roca by then. I don’t know…”

She does know, however, that the city she grew up in has too many guns. Chelsea, Massachusetts – where Roca was founded – has too many guns. Hartford, Connecticut, where Roca opened a branch just last year, has too many guns. It’s a problem, she says. And Roca can do only so much to curb violence.

It’s not her quote, Baldwin stresses, but there’s a message that she wants to get out in any and every way she can. “‘If more guns meant we were safer, we would be the safest nation in the world,’” she says. “We are not.”

But with Roca, more and more young people in the eye of the storm where trauma and violence converge are trying to do better, live better, and think ever so briefly before acting on impulse. And with every door that ultimately, eventually opens – no matter how many times Roca has to knock – change is being made.

“I think it’s important to understand the young people in our community are ours. And even though some of them end up in harm’s way or cause a lot of harm themselves – people can change,” Baldwin says. “But we have to pay attention to them. And we have to do things in a way that works for them.”