Andy De Jesus’ first arrest came after he stole a car at age 12. Five years, three felonies and two months in jail later, De Jesus is fighting to free himself from the justice system in which he has become captive.
Two years ago, when he was 16 and facing substantial prison time on robbery and gun charges, De Jesus turned to Empowered Youth for help.
“I enrolled in the program and my time was minimized,” he said. Empowered Youth “opens doors and gives us a second chance.”
The five-year-old program is the brainchild of Colleen Adams, who began to volunteer at the Miami-Dade County Juvenile Detention Center after reading a newspaper story about incarcerated juveniles. Her work at the center evolved into a weekly in-detention program aimed at helping the juveniles after they are released.
“I realized they needed something to break the cycle of re-offending,” Adams said. “It’s a pattern that develops and sucks them in.”
Adams said teens build tough personalities to survive on the street. Empowered Youth tries to build character by focusing on 28 traits, among them kindness, integrity and honesty.
“On the streets, compassion, decency and kindness are considered soft,” Adams said. “The program is about restoring humanity and allowing it to re-emerge.”
The success of the program prompted the creation of Empowered Youth Neighborhood in March 2009.
With money from the taxpayer-funded Children’s Trust of Miami-Dade County, the program offers juvenile ex-offenders support and mentoring with the aim of helping reduce the chances they would return to crime.
Offenders are referred to Empowered Youth Neighborhood by other programs, the state attorney’s office and the public defender. If they attend Monday- and Wednesday evening sessions and graduate, their charges may be reduced or dropped.
Thus far, 20 young men have graduated from the program and only one has re-offended.
But the funding apparently was a one-time allocation. The Children’s Trust faces a severe revenue decline this year and Empowered Youth Neighborhood did not get another grant. Adams keeps it going, though, providing dinner or lunch at meetings and transportation for those who need it.
De Jesus had one of the longest criminal rap sheets among program participants.
Two years ago, at age 16, he faced charges of strong-armed robbery, armed robbery and possession of a concealed firearm. A judge sentenced him to two months in jail and a year’s probation and ordered him to enter the Empowered Youth Neighborhood program. He graduated and now works as a program mentor.
But De Jesus’ commitment to redirecting his future doesn’t overshadow his history. Already kicked out of 14 schools, he said he now cannot find a high school willing to accept him.
“Often people will judge these kids and label them. We give them positive encouragement,” said Carlos Valdes, a program coordinator. “Many of them don’t get the support they need from their parents. They aren’t exposed to many role models.”
De Jesus is hoping for a career in the arts.
“I want to be a graphic designer,” he said. “I want to incorporate graffiti and turn the negatives into positives. Life is hard when you have so many things that you did in the past that affect you.”
Adams wants to create employment opportunities for program graduates and hopes to join forces with a local fabric, printing and embroidery firm to create an urban apparel line called “Empowered Youth Street Wear.”
She is planning to commit her time and money to the boys of Empowered Youth Neighborhood, asking only one thing in return: a commitment to change.
“I’m like a soccer mom on steroids,” she said.
Deborah Souverain may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.