I went to law school in California planning to make the world a safer place by incarcerating criminals. During my first week, I volunteered to teach incarcerated youth about the law, in all honesty, because I wanted to meet “juvenile delinquents.”
This service experience changed my life.
I realized that underneath the shells of hardened “juvenile delinquents” were kids. Kids who had grown up believing that by the time they were 18 or 21 they would be in prison or dead.
Kids who over and over again would tell me: “If only.”
I hadn’t expected to care. But, their stories began to haunt me. I found myself wishing that someone would listen to their ideas and do something to help. Then it hit me – I should stop wishing and start doing.
So I asked them, “What would you do to help other kids from ending up here?” They said: 1. Teach kids about the consequences of crime to help them learn how to make better choices; 2. Connect them with a positive role model to help them be successful; and 3. give them a chance to give back to their communities to help them show it’s not too late for “juvenile delinquents” to change.
These youth wrote letters of recommendations for seed funding to start Fresh Lifelines for Youth (FLY). Today, over 10 years later, with 100 volunteers and 26 staff, FLY provides the programs they recommended: legal education, mentoring, and leadership training for kids in the juvenile justice system and those at-risk for system involvement. The kids who helped design FLY were right; their suggestions worked. FLY effectively helps kids start transforming their lives for less than 1/10 the cost of incarceration.
At FLY, the youth we seek to serve continue to be our greatest teachers, reminding us that those we want to help have the greatest insights into what they need and an incredible capacity to serve as part of the solution. Personally, I am mindful that being a part of an organization that is all about transformation began, first, with my own.
Christa Gannon is the Founder and Executive Director of Fresh Lifelines for Youth (FLY)