Michele Tafuri grew up in a small, Italian neighborhood in Philadelphia. Like hers, each surrounding neighborhood was identified by nationality, race, or religion.
“Throughout my middle school and early high school years, the surrounding neighborhoods seemed to toughen up in an effort to maintain their own and defend what was theirs. This meant that you could expect being noticed, if you were the wrong race or nationality in the wrong neighborhood,” Tafuri remembers, adding that her own father was shot and almost killed by a gang of teenagers just because he was white and walking down a street.
“Lines blurred, friendships were tested, and the only thing you could trust in was your family.”
Tafuri survived by relying on her brother, Michael, who like his sister is today a case manager for Diakon Youth Services' Bridge Program in Delaware County, Pa.
"I've been given the opportunity to help the girl I could have become.”
“I knew he always had my back and I would always believe in him. We kept each other safe and never let the other get into trouble alone,” she says. “We came from a hard-working family. We didn't have much, but what we did have was our pride and respect and no one was going to take that from us.”
It was that experience that helped prepare Tafuri for her role as a case manager with the Bridge Program.
“Growing up the way that I did provided me with the experience and street-smarts needed to empathize with the troubled teens I work with today,” she says. “I have the opportunity to contribute to positive change while giving back to the community.”
Through at-home and in-school visits, curfew checks and electronic monitoring, Tafuri teaches adolescent girls accountability, self-discipline, and respect, as well as about consequences and positive reinforcement.
Having learned the value of volunteerism while in high school, Tafuri also leads the teenagers in frequent group-volunteer projects, often at the local women’s shelter, as a way to complete their court-ordered community service. Projects range from cleaning and doing laundry to helping revitalize the Donation Center in the shelter’s basement.
“The girls have swept the floors and sorted through piles of clothes, used toys and trash bags and bins filled with blankets, bottles, and books,” she says. “One of the most impactful days spent at the shelter was when the girls were able to sit down and have a group discussion with a few of the teen mothers who had been living at the women's shelter.”
Each day, as Tafuri returns to work, she is driven by the changes she sees and the progress each girl makes.
“I see myself and my brother in the adolescents I work with every day. I've been given the opportunity to help the girl I could have become,” she says of her motivation for wanting to help young people succeed. “It's why I take pride in my job and in putting on my Diakon badge for work every day.”
"Michele and Michael exhibit tremendous passion as role models and colleagues," says Ron Davis, who oversees all of Diakon Youth Services' programs in southeastern Pennsylvania. "They are both genuine gifts to Diakon and to those we serve."