Editor’s note: This article was reported prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

He was never really lost. But his way found him. Now, youth advocate Ed Harmon is helping local kids find their way.

Harmon is one of those guys that most communities have, and that every community needs. As a program director for Lebanon County Youth Advocate Programs, Harmon makes a difference in our community where it matters most: at its base.

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Unlike a lot of people who are involved in social work, youth advocacy wasn’t necessarily Harmon’s calling, at least not at first. More than grown into his role, Harmon has now come to embrace it.

“It’s rewarding when kids succeed,” said Harmon. “You’re putting your heart and soul into these kids. Sometimes they’ll stay in touch with you when they get out of the program. They’ll check up on me and call me and say, ‘Hey, I need your advice’. That’s what keeps you going.

“But I think the most difficult part is dealing with clients who you believe in and they don’t succeed,” continued Harmon. “You feel like a failure sometimes. If you go 0-for-4, you’re not going home happy.”

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Harmon and his staff work with Lebanon County children ages four to 18, mostly teenagers who have gotten into trouble or had brushes with law. The kids are referred to Youth Advocate Programs by the Lebanon County Juvenile Probation Department as a way of avoiding incarceration.

Harmon, 43, has been working at Youth Advocate Programs for 16 years. He got his foot in the door at his predecessor’s wedding.

For taxpayers, the cost of enrolling troubled kids in the Lebanon County Youth Advocacy program is nearly one-tenth of sticking them in juvenile detention centers.

At any given time, some 75 local kids are enrolled in Youth Advocate Programs.

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“You have to be a jack-of-all-trades,” said Harmon. “If you’re trying to help a kid find a job, you have to be skilled at how to build a resume. You might have to be able to do math homework. You might be working with a kid who likes to work out, or another one might like to go for a walk. You almost need to be a chameleon. You’ve got to be able to adapt to everyone’s needs. You also have to be culturally confident.”

The job requires wanting to do good and a desire to help people, Harmon said, but it also requires thick skin.

“I’ve had kids lash out at me. You need to have a certain sense of humor,” he said. “I can be sarcastic and I think it helps me de-escalate situations.”

Harmon is a 43-year-old resident of Jonestown and a graduate of Northern Lebanon High School. He’s been in his current role as program director for six years, and he’s been working with Lebanon County Youth Advocate Programs for a total of 16 years.

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“This isn’t what I planned on doing at all,” said Harmon. “I went to school for journalism. I started doing this part-time. I felt good about it. I feel good when I go home at night. It’s definitely not a job that you will get rich at.

“I was going to [Harrisburg Area Community College] and one of the guys I went to class with worked here,” added Harmon. “He told me, ‘I get paid to go play basketball with kids at the YMCA.’ I didn’t believe him.”

Harmon and his wife then ended up attending the wedding of former program director Bob Swanson, where Harmon says Swanson conducted an interview on the spot.

Six years later, Harmon feels he’s grown into the job. “I want to continue to do this. I want to be good at what I do and continue to help my community,” he said.

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The vast majority of kids enrolled in the program come from the county, and 60 percent of them hail from the Lebanon School District. Some 80 percent of them come from single-parent homes, while 55 percent of that total number are Caucasian and 38 percent are Latino.

There are three times more boys enrolled in the program than girls.

Most of the youth Harmon works with act out after having experienced some form of trauma.

“I think there’s a tremendous need,” said Harmon. “The kids I work with specifically are part of the traditional advocate program. We work with people who are involved with the children and youth program or on probation. They’re kids who need a little bit of help.

“A lot of them come from single-parent families, “ Harmon added. “You can’t be everywhere at once, and that’s where we come in. We try to be mentors for these people. If you look at poverty in the county, we have more in the city. There’s a correlation between economics and behavior. Every once in a while, we’ll get a kid who has two parents at home, but more often than not, they’re from single-parent homes.”

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Once local kids are referred to Youth Advocate Programs, mentors like Harmon will meet with them and work with them in one-on-one or small-group settings. An early element of forming a relationship is gaining the child’s trust and getting her or she to buy into the need for it.

But the importance of merely spending time together cannot be overstated.

“Juvenile probation will send a referral over to us,” said Harmon. “We’ll go over to the kid’s house and ask them, ‘What can we help you with? How can we help you? How can you help you? How can we help you together?’ I’ll try to talk to them one-on-one and get to know them. I’ll try to figure out what they like. It’s taking the time to get to know them.

“For some of the kids, the time is huge,” continued Harmon. “At the beginning it isn’t so easy, so you’ve got to be patient, and you can’t give up. You get a little resistance at first. You have to be able to step out of your comfort zone.”

Advocates like Harmon are not required to have any formal background in social services or child psychology, though he does undergo about 20 hours of training a year through Youth Advocate Programs. Some of it is trial and error. Some of it is learning through experience. And some of it is learning through compassion and empathy.

Learning how to cope with the emotional toll of work is crucial in Harmon’s field, and is one of the primary drivers behind high burnout and turnover rates in social work.

“We’re trying to break that cycle,” said Harmon. “We have a great relationship with juvenile probation. It’s a collaborative effort. We’re trying to keep them out of the system.”

That can be tricky when every child has different needs.

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“Most of the kids we work with have had trauma of some sort in their lives. Everyone deals with trauma differently,” Harmon said. “We want to teach kids life skills. They need to know how to take care of themselves. Everything we do is like a band-aid. But we don’t want to be a crutch. We don’t want them to depend on us. We want to empower them.”

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Social services in general and youth advocacy specifically can take a toll on one’s soul. Harmon is still learning how to turn off his switch at the end of the day and not take his work home with him.

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“I’m a human. I’m going to be compassionate about it,” said Harmon. “Sometimes I do think about all the kids I’ve helped over the years. I hope I was able to help every kid I worked with. Every kid has the potential to succeed. Hopefully, I was able to give them a push in the right direction.”

Helping kids find their way, like he has found his.

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