Dealers, dopers, dropouts, delinquents. They wear the labels given them by teachers, peers, family, and society, which has turned its back on them—or never had much hope for them to begin with. Trouble finds them, or they find trouble, and they're plucked off the streets to spend 6 months, maybe 12 or 18, in the District's optimistically named New Beginnings, a $46 million juvenile detention center tucked away in Laurel, Maryland.
But to Whitney Louchheim, WCL/JD '05, and Penelope Spain, WCL/JD '05, these thieves and thugs, corner boys and bangers, are more than the sum of their rap sheets. These young men, nearly all of them D.C. born and raised, are children deprived of a childhood, troubled souls in need of an advocate, a confidante, a mentor, a North Star.
Spain and Louchheim wear labels of their own: do-gooders, bleeding hearts, idealists. But just like the juvenile offenders with whom they work at Mentoring Today, the nonprofit they founded in 2005, they aren't so easily categorized.
"One of the kids once said, 'Y'all are like goldfish that bite,'" laughs Louchheim, 35. "They look friendly enough, but don't mess with them."
In truth, the pair are idealists. Like generations of American University students before them and waves still to come, Spain and Louchheim came to Washington in fall 2002 "to make a difference."
"We just needed to define it," recalls Spain, 38.
A native of Napa, California-a community of vineyard owners and the migrant workers who labor in their fields-Spain's family constantly teetered on the poverty line. She met Louchheim, who came from a liberal, human rights-focused family in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, during their first day of orientation at the Washington College of Law (WCL). The women chatted for hours after their serendipitous meeting, swapping stories about their childhoods, their spirituality, and their desire to use their law degrees for good-whatever that might look like.
A budding interest in juvenile justice solidified their bond.
"The summer after my first year of law school, I shadowed a public defender at Oak Hill Youth Center and was blown away by the conditions," says Spain of the violent, crumbling facility, which preceded New Beginnings. "It broke my heart that we were treating kids like this in America."
Struck by the shortcomings of the juvenile justice system-the rats and roaches that roamed Oak Hill, the mountains of case files that littered social workers' desks, the racial disparity among D.C.'s juvenile offenders-she knew she'd found her calling.
In fall 2003, Spain and Louchheim, who clerked for a magistrate judge in D.C. Superior Court's child abuse and neglect division, founded Students United, pairing WCL student mentors with 16- to 21-year-old inmates at Oak Hill. The goal: to help the young men successfully reintegrate into their neighborhoods and empower them to become productive members of society. Today, Mentoring Today draws its corps of volunteers exclusively from Students United. (Over the last nine years, Mentoring Today has matched 58 mentors with 64 mentees.)
"I remember we were walking the halls of Oak Hill one day [as law students], watching the mentors and mentees work together, and I said to Whitney, 'Wouldn't it be amazing if this was our job?'" says Spain.
The goldfish finally had something to sink their teeth in.
According to a 2010 report by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 67 percent of incarcerated youth (roughly 70,000 kids nationwide) reported having witnessed someone severely injured or killed. Twenty-two percent had attempted suicide, and 30 percent (five times the rate for all kids) had dabbled with crack or cocaine.
Locally, 70 percent of the approximately 1,000 juveniles arrested annually in the District grew up east of the Anacostia River in Wards 5, 7, and 8-communities marred by poverty, high unemployment, and dismal high school graduation rates. Fifty to 80 percent of the young men who churn through New Beginnings, which opened in 2009, have also cycled in and out of Washington's child abuse and neglect system. Some are homeless; many wrestle with mental health issues, drug problems, or post traumatic stress disorder. Nearly all come from fatherless homes.
Given the complexity of the juveniles' issues, the first rule Spain and Louchheim share with Mentoring Today volunteers is a surprisingly simple one: show up.
"These kids are used to empty promises, so they don't expect much," Louchheim says. "The first step to building trust is showing up every week."
D.C. native Marquis was used to being left. His mother went to prison when he was eight, and he bounced around the foster care system until her release, seven years later. Marquis was arrested for the first time at age 12 for stealing a car; he was wrapping up a nearly two-year stint at New Beginnings for drug charges in 2010 when he was matched with mentor Claire Grandison, WCL/JD '14.
"I think we've been to every restaurant, library, and museum in the city. I also call her with my lady problems," says Marquis, now 22, with a gentle laugh. Grandison, who will work at Philadelphia's Community Legal Services starting next year, helped Marquis with everything from his Spanish homework to job and college applications to apartment searches.
"She taught me how to advocate for myself-how to properly ask for what I need-and to be a productive, positive person," says Marquis, a polite young man with a charismatic smile, who greets everyone with a hug.
Grandison is gratified to have witnessed Marquis's transformation from lost boy to a mentor himself. "Despite confronting so many obstacles, he remains a constant optimist who never ceases to develop creative goals to improve himself and his community. It's been incredibly rewarding to watch Marquis work hard to get the jobs he wanted, continue his education and training, and advocate on behalf of himself and others in the juvenile justice system."
Today, Marquis works as a youth leader with FREE Project, a group founded by Mentoring Today mentees that advocates for education and employment opportunities for kids caught up in D.C.'s criminal justice system. In June, he collected the Coalition for Juvenile Justice's prestigious Spirit of Youth Award during the nonprofit's annual conference-with Grandison proudly looking on from the audience.
"She's not just my mentor, she's my friend," Marquis says. "Anything I need, I know she's always going to answer my calls. She'll always be there-and you can't say that about many people."
The summer before her third year of law school, Spain did something unprecedented: she took time off.
She retreated to Venezuela, where she once worked for the Carter Center, to undertake a silent meditation and pen a business plan for Mentoring Today. She envisioned an organization where volunteers would serve not only as mentors but also as legal advocates, helping juveniles—who opt into the program—navigate the murky reentry process.
Unlike other programs, which connect mentors with kids after they return home, Spain wanted to begin building relationships with the juveniles four to six months before their release. "There's this really rich moment where the kids are literally a captive audience," she says. "If you wait until they come home, they quickly get sucked back into their old lives, and you've lost that window of opportunity."
Louchheim, meanwhile, took crash courses in grant writing, website development, and fund raising—all while studying for her last round of finals. "I was researching things like insurance—we couldn't pay for it just yet, but I knew what we needed."
In October 2005, a month after they sat for the bar exam, Spain and Louchheim—who also work as defense attorneys, representing young, lower-level offenders in delinquency court—got their nonprofit status. Soon after, they found space in a warehouse near Marvin Gaye Park in northeast D.C. Calling it an "office" might be too generous; the converted closet had lights and a small desk, but no heat, air conditioning, or windows. (The space was, however, great for fund raising. "Donors would say, 'We'll give you money just to get out of here,'" laughs Louchheim.)
"We were escorted to work every day by the drug dealers from D.C.'s largest open-air heroin market," Spain recalls. Staff retreats consisted of snacking on ice cream sandwiches and strolling through the park. And they couldn't have been happier, she says.
In July 2006, the women received a $45,000 award from D.C.'s Justice Grants Administration. Weeks later, they made their first seven matches inside Oak Hill. Mentoring Today was up and running.
When they first meet under the harsh lights of the New Beginnings cafeteria, the mentees don't tell their new mentors what landed them under the supervision of D.C.'s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS). The details will emerge eventually, but up to this point the youth have been defined by their crimes: drug slinger, auto thief, disturber of the peace. For the first time in a long time, the kids have a clean slate. "We want them to lead with their goals, to focus on the future," Louchheim says.
There are games and food—carefully laid out on the same tables each week, as structure and routine are important—to help the pairs get to know one another in a relaxed, nonthreatening environment. Though they receive 10 hours of training, the mentors, who are recruited every September, don't come in with an agenda for those first few 90-minute sessions. "We want them to develop a level of comfort and understanding with the mentees," Louchheim says. "We don't want them to get too deep, too fast."
Early on, the mentors' job is to encourage the young offenders to take accountability for the choices that landed them behind bars and challenge them to imagine a life outside the watchful, unblinking eye of the criminal justice system. As the final months of the juveniles' sentences begin to tick away, the mentors switch into advocacy mode, sitting in on meetings with DYRS and social service officials to hash out the terms of release and ensure housing, education, mental health, and employment needs are addressed. That's where the volunteers' legal training comes into play.
"The academic lessons I learned in the classroom felt incomplete without seeing their practical effect," says Marquis's mentor, Claire Grandison. "Mentoring provided a window through which I was able to learn about the intricacies of the juvenile and criminal justice systems and see how they function in practice.
"Addressing issues in a piecemeal fashion is often ineffective because housing, employment, education, safety, and other factors are all connected, and a deficiency in one area threatens security in all."
When juveniles are released from New Beginnings, they're assigned to one of a dozen group homes scattered across the District for 30 to 90 days. They're fitted with GPS monitoring bracelets, which must be charged for one hour, twice a day. They submit to weekly or twice-weekly drug tests, counseling, and substance abuse treatment and must attend school, work, or both. They have multiple—often conflicting—curfews and daily appointments that can take them to opposite ends of the city. (A frequent question for mentors: How do I pay for $12 a day in Metro fare?)
And as their lives get more complicated postrelease, so do the juveniles' relationships with their mentors.
Despite the rigorous terms of their release, the youth enjoy more freedom on the outside. It's easy to slip into old habits; temptation seemingly lingers on every corner.
"Kids get out and they're looking over their shoulders. They can become more guarded, they're easily derailed," Louchheim says. "In some ways, mentors have to start all over."
Some juveniles see the mentoring relationship as an escape—from their group home, at the very least. Others fall off the radar but reemerge when a crisis arises and leads them back to their mentor for help. "Kids know they can come to us with anything," Spain says.
Whether they stick together from the start or reconnect down the road, most of Mentoring Today's pairs weather the storm of reentry.
Nationally, 45 percent of mentoring relationships last 12 months. Twice as many of Mentoring Today's matches—90 percent—hit the year mark and, in fact, most pairs work together for about two and a half years. Under the guidance of the WCL students, 97 percent of youth active in Mentoring Today enroll in school or a GED or vocational program upon their release—compared to only 57 percent of juvenile offenders nationwide. Many go on to college. Seventy-one percent also obtain part- or full-time employment.
Often, as is the case with Marquis and his mentor, Claire Grandison, they stay in touch even after the mentor collects her law degree and takes a job outside of the D.C. area. It's at that point that a different kind of relationship emerges.
"The kids have learned to advocate for themselves, but they still want someone to talk to," Louchheim says. "In the end, it's a friendship that remains."
Louchheim, a self-professed data wonk, is always quick with a statistic. You have to be when you're accountable to donors and funding agencies.
But asked for evidence that the Mentoring Today model works, Louchheim—a mother of two young sons, whose instinct to nurture, encourage, and protect extends to her other kids—offers an anecdote.
"When we go to New Beginnings, I hug all of our mentees—that's powerful. These kids are more childlike than they appear, and they just want to be loved. For them, our meetings are a very bright spot in a rough week, a rough month."
A rough life.
Spain says it's easy to get discouraged. "Kids are still coming through our program in dire straits. Have we eradicated the need for a program like Mentoring Today? No. Will we ever? I'm not sure." The mother of a nearly two-year-old son, Spain says she finds encouragement in the "ripple effect."
"Some of our mentees are having kids themselves. One of them said to me, 'I never had a father figure, but I'm going to do things differently for my daughter.' That gives me hope."
Spoken like a true idealist.