Mentoring juveniles before they become adult criminals
Law school graduates Whitney Louchheim and Penelope Spain founded Mentoring Today, a Washington, DC program where volunteers are mentoring juveniles, trying to help keep them out of jail in the future.
Michael Bonfigli/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
In their first job out of law school, Whitney Louchheim and Penelope Spain worked, literally, in a closet. With neither windows nor air conditioning, ‚Äúmy wrists stuck to the keyboard when I typed,‚ÄĚ Ms. Louchheim remembers. The two had borrowed the closet-cum-office from a nonprofit group in an unsavory neighborhood.
‚ÄúWe were right next to ‚Ä¶ the biggest open-air heroin market in D.C.,‚ÄĚ Ms. Spain recalls. Their location was difficult for outsiders to comprehend. ‚ÄúOur parents would come to visit, and they were terrified,‚ÄĚ Spain says. ‚ÄúMy father just looked at me like, ‚ÄėThis is what has become of my daughter and her law degree?‚Äô ‚ÄĚ
But from the moment they met on orientation day at American University, the two women had bonded over an unconventional vision: to help young men in jail leave Washington‚Äôs juvenile justice system and find their way to productive, fulfilling lives.
Louchheim and Spain cofounded Mentoring Today, a nonprofit that matches volunteer mentors with youths serving time at the district‚Äôs juvenile lockup, then called Oak Hills.
In 2004, when the women first began planning their project, roughly one-third of the young men who‚Äôd been imprisoned were sent back to Oak Hills within a year of being released. Louchheim and Spain knew some of them: They had started a tutoring program that brought classmates from American University into Oak Hills.
The women realized they were positioned to be more than teachers. ‚ÄúLegal issues, housing, family, friends, girlfriend,‚ÄĚ Spain says. ‚ÄúAll of those things we were involved in because we had earned their trust.‚ÄĚ
Louchheim and Spain also found themselves serving as de facto advocates for the young men, following up with caseworkers, lawyers, or parents. Eventually, they realized this kind of support needed a full-time effort. So¬†instead of taking the usual path for bright law school graduates ‚Äď lucrative internships or prestigious clerkships ‚Äď they started Mentoring Today with a couple of credit cards and a promise they made to each other at Spain‚Äôs kitchen table.
‚ÄúWe said, ‚ÄėI‚Äôll hire you if you hire me,‚Äô ‚ÄĚ Spain says. ‚ÄúIt was a deal.‚ÄĚ
Flash-forward five years. Mentoring Today now has a solid track record. It has inspired mentors to donate more than 1,800 volunteer hours, which have helped more than 30 young men remake their lives. Last year, the nonprofit raised more than $350,000 from donors and grantmakers to fund its services.
The women defined ‚Äúsuccess‚ÄĚ differently than do many at-risk youth programs. Although 92 percent of those they mentor have continued with their education, for example, those who end up behind bars again aren‚Äôt written off. When one of Spain‚Äôs early mentoring subjects returned to a lockup, she still saw progress: He‚Äôd learned to read and write and could write letters to her.
Mentoring To¬≠day‚Äôs willingness to stand by its young people is ‚Äúthe biggest proof‚ÄĚ of its success, says
Da¬≠vid Muhammad, chief of committed services for the Department of Youth Rehab¬≠il¬≠itation Ser¬≠¬≠vices (DYRS) in the district.
‚ÄúThey‚Äôre so consistent with the young people, even after some of them get back into trouble,‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúThey don‚Äôt quit. They didn‚Äôt stop and say, ‚ÄėHe got rearrested, so I‚Äôm going on to the next one.‚Äô They remain with these young people, often even after they‚Äôre out of DYRS, out of our jurisdiction or custody.‚ÄĚ
Both Louchheim and Spain credit their mothers for the path they‚Äôve found themselves on. Spain grew up in Napa, Calif., where her mom helped immigrant women at a nonprofit. Spain‚Äôs friends growing up were Latinos, and she remembers ‚Äúfighting verbally with various folks in the community, with my teachers, with my stepfather‚ÄĚ over immigration issues.
‚ÄúWith my mother working at a nonprofit,‚ÄĚ she says, ‚ÄúI always had an eye out for the most forgotten segment of a population or the segment folks don‚Äôt want to see.‚ÄĚ
Louchheim was raised in Gettysburg, Pa., where her mother taught native American art history. ‚ÄúGrowing up, we would go to a lot of reservations,‚ÄĚ Louchheim says. ‚ÄúI learned that there was unbelievable poverty in this country, that it wasn‚Äôt really going anywhere, and that people didn‚Äôt really know about it.‚ÄĚ
Most of the youths helped by Mentoring Today come from the east side of the Anacostia River. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs predominantly black, forgotten, and poor, with high unemployment rates, low education rates ‚Äď you name it,‚ÄĚ she says.
Louchheim and Spain hope to set up a support network to ease the transition for young offenders from the D.C. lockup back to their lives in east Anacostia. They concentrate on boys under 18 ‚Äď the gender focus is in part because the facility they chose is male-only, and the age limit is because they want to catch at-risk youths before they become adults.
In D.C., which has no state-level prison facilities, adults convicted of felonies may be shipped off to federal prisons around the country, further disconnecting them from their families, advocates, and other support.
Mentoring Today makes its matches four months before the inmate is scheduled to be released. Says Spain: ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs not rocket science. It‚Äôs going in and saying, ‚ÄėI am one individual who will come out here, see you every week, and listen to you.‚Äô We have no further agenda‚ÄĚ
Volunteer mentor Erin Davies appreciated this approach. She helped the young man she mentored for a year with dozens of problems in his daily life, but she says they really bonded over spending time together as equals, time that enriched both their lives.
‚ÄúWe were actually the first double date in the program, when he and his girlfriend and me and my husband went out to dinner and a movie one night,‚ÄĚ she recalls.
Mentoring Today‚Äôs unique approach also worked well for Brandon, one of Mentoring Today‚Äôs most successful young men. (Because his criminal record is confidential, Brandon shared only his first name.)
Right after he was released, Brandon went back to high school. But the school was in Maryland, far from his home. His mentor made sure he caught the bus, or picked him up if he needed a ride. That support helped him earn his high school diploma, a moment he remembers with pride.
‚ÄúMy middle-school teacher told me I wasn‚Äôt going to graduate from high school,‚ÄĚ he says, ‚Äúso I was happy.‚ÄĚ
Louchheim and Spain might seem sweet, but they can be tough when they have to be. When one young man saw them strongly advocate for him, ‚Äúhe saw the ferociousness come out,‚ÄĚ Spain says. ‚ÄúHe leaned back and said, ‚ÄėY‚Äôall are like goldfish that bite!‚Äô ‚ÄĚ