In 2014, I became involved with an at-risk youth diversion program. After studying the curriculum, I disagreed with the “scared straight tactics” and so, I created my own program called R.E.A.C.H. (Rehabilitate, Educate And Create Hope). It’s a straightforward system: reach men in order to reach troubled youth.
I wanted to understand the struggles that had turned us into the people we had become. There had been so many tragic stories that resulted in tears and anger. I watched men break so that we could begin the healing process together. I took 24 men from all walks of the criminal life who had been filled with hate, rage and substance abuse issues. Whenever their tempers flared, arguments would break out and almost turn into fights. But I found that their behavior was only to mask their pain. It took several months of training to get them to the point where I was confident enough to leave them alone with the kids we were working with.
Our first group of at-risk youth were a mixture of boys and girls, ages 13 to 17. I mentored a 17-year-old girl who had been a victim of sexual and domestic violence. Hearing firsthand about the abuse she had gone through shook me to the core. I felt like a coward and a failure. It changed me. Three months later, that young girl called to let me know that she was doing better, and I cried tears of joy.
I have found a purpose in this work. We see ourselves in these children, and we are truly blessed to have this opportunity to give back. These moments stay with us. We have had many breakthroughs and life-saving events. Several have turned in their guns. Others have opened up about bullying. One who had been sexually assaulted by a family member opened up about the experience, and law enforcement was contacted.
I had a REACH brother who struggled with drug addiction but fought to be a part of the program. I make sure all inmates are drug tested randomly before working with the teens, and on the day they arrived he had been able to attend. I assigned this gentleman to a 16-year-old girl who was struggling with school and behavioral issues and was said to be using drugs.Throughout the day, I saw her go from anger to tears and then to smiles and laughter. At the end of each session, the children on the program come up and read the commitments that they have made to their mentors. That young girl committed to sobriety, to respecting her parents and to graduate from school — if her mentor committed to enrolling in college. He did.
But he would never get to know how she turned out. When she had graduated, she reached out to her mentor to tell him the good news. Unfortunately, he had been found dead in his cell of an apparent drug overdose three days prior. But he had managed to get through to her. Rest in peace, Robert Walters.
I found my north on the road to redemption. Today I’m free! I stand as a servant to mankind. Thank you for listening.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.