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Group Offers New Beginnings for Incarcerated Youth

New America Media, Jen Cooper Posted: Dec 15, 2009

Editor's Note: At a time when the juvenile justice system is being re-examined across the country, and several states are lacking in mentoring programs for incarcerated youth, two women who met in law school in Washington, D.C. are pairing juvenile offenders with adults in the city to do just this.

The cafeteria at the youth detention center is empty by 7 p.m. except for three teenage residents, who are waiting for their mentors to arrive. When they do, the mentors come bearing three boxes of Dominos pizza, two-liter bottles of soda and clear trash bags filled with board games and cards.

After hugs and handshakes, the three mentors, all young professionals, sit down with the residents at the long cafeteria tables to eat, chat and play a round of Uno.

It would be easy to mistake this scene at the New Beginnings Youth Center in Laurel, Md. as a casual party. It may look like lighthearted fun, but Penelope Spain, co-founder of Mentoring Today, said the conversations, food and games are all part of a purposeful effort to break the generational cycles of poverty, crime and prison.

Listen closer: One pair practices a budgeting exercise to determine what kind of cell phone plan the resident can afford when he is released. Bethany Mahler, 29, listens to 16-year-old Jacob, not his real name, as he reads a paragraph about his five-year goals. He plans to have either his high school diploma or GED, and to be working as a bus driver, he tells her.

I will have my own apartment with my girlfriend in Maryland. I dont plan on living in D.C. when I get older. Its too risky and theres too much crime, he reads from the crumpled piece of notebook paper that he has been carrying in his pocket.

On average, the youth in the mentoring program have been arrested five times. Nearly 85 percent come from single-parent homes with multiple children. Most of them are several grades behind in reading and math. Many have learning, mental or emotional disabilities.

In their efforts to break the cycle, Spain and her co-founder Whitney Louchheim launched Mentoring Today, a nonprofit organization that pairs juvenile offenders in New Beginnings Youth Development Center with adult mentors to help the young men transition back into society.

For their efforts, the Catalogue for Philanthropy recently selected Mentoring Today as one of the best small charities in Washington, D.C. Mentoring Today has been offering its services since 2006, employs four full-time staffers and is currently working with 10 active mentors and 24 active youths.

Spain said Mentoring Today has been successful because of its unique approach of first building relationships with the youth, and then serving as an advocate for the goals they have set for themselves. Its a client-centered approach that gives the young men control.

As law students at American University, Spain and Louchheim volunteered at Oak Hill Youth Center, which has since closed and has been replaced by New Beginnings. They were struck by the poor conditions and the revolving-door culture of the juvenile justice system. They also noticed the youth had little, if any, interaction with their attorney after the sentencing period.

Mentoring Today came about to fill that gap, Spain said. Its a way to marry the really personal and powerful connection that two people can have with the legal advocacy.

Mentors commit to spending three hours a week with their mentee for a whole year. At first, that time is spent at the New Beginning facility. Spain said Mentoring Today purposefully recruits juveniles who still have at least three to four months left at the facility. This allows time for mentors and residents to build a relationship before the resident transitions back into the community.

Mahler has been meeting with Jacob since July. Mentoring Today does not tell its mentors what specific crimes their mentees committed, and the residents are instructed not to share that information with their mentors. This allows the youth a chance to start the relationship with a clean slate. While Mahler said she is naturally curious about the crimes, she understands why they dont share that information.

I think its a good idea, just having someone in these kids lives, having one person whos not thinking Oh, (Jacob) the kid who steals cars or Oh, (Jacob), the kid who sells drugs, she said.

During one of their first meetings, Mahler said she and Jacob brainstormed a list of activities that hed like to do after hes released. With the exception of skydiving, the activities on the list are mundane: go to the movies, go to a football game, go for a hike, visit an aquarium. Ultimately, the majority of his suggestions had to do with eating: Ruby Tuesdays, T.G.I. Fridays, Chilis, Dave and Busters, Red Lobster. He also wants to try sushi.

For their most recent session, Mahler brought along that list so Jacob could add to it, since he will likely be released within the month. They added a visit to a candy store and ESPN Zone.

After revising the list, Mahler, and Mentoring Todays re-entry attorney Ben Thelen, pulled Jacob aside from the group to talk about his immediate goals for when he returns home.

My goal is to help you achieve your goals, Thelen tells Jacob. Youre my boss in this relationship. You can tell me what to do.

This approach is one of the defining qualities of Mentoring Today. The youth in their program are treated as clients, meaning, they decide what services they want. Letting the young men choose their own life path increases the likelihood that they will actually follow through with their goals, Spain said.

Our job is to get the youths buy-in to the services we think are best for him, she said. If we dont have their buy-in, forget it, theyre not going to do any of these things.

Aside from the one-on-one relationship, Mentoring Today staff members continue to serve the youth as an advocate in the courts, schools and workforce. Spain said the organization operates on the philosophy that nothing is too big or too small.

The small things include helping a young man who showed up at the Mentoring Today offices in Anacostia, wearing dress shoes without socks. He knew the staff would help him get socks in time for his job interview. The big issues include navigating the bureaucracies of the juvenile and adult courts. Staff members try to get the young men placed in programs and environments where they will have the best access to services, like mental health care and GED preparation.

Spain said that the larger community benefits from the program as well, because the youth are less likely to re-offend and become a threat to public safety. Still, there are critics who would argue that the best way to make the streets safe would be to hand down stiffer penalties and longer sentences for young offenders.

Well thats an option, but its a pretty expensive option, Spain said. The more we institutionalize them, the more we send them away to locked facilities, the harder and harder theyre going to be to serve, and the bigger the threat theyre going to be to the community.

Spain said she didnt think of the youths as criminals, but as kids who have committed a crime.

Ultimately, I just believe in our youth, she said. I believe they are better than their worst act.

Jen Cooper is a creative writing student in Prof. Angie Chuang's "Race, Ethnicity and Community Reporting" class at American University School of Communication, where she's working towards an MFA.

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