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Instead of Jail, Teen Offenders Try a Fresh Start

  • Faiza Elmasry

Terrence Sinclair was 17 when he ran into trouble.

“I got into a couple of fights or something and that led to me actually getting detained,” he said.

Instead of being sentenced to prison, as an adult might have been, Sinclair was sent to the Fresh Start program in the Washington, D.C. area. He now spends his days studying for his high school diploma, while also learning a vocation.

“I wanted to come out and get my education," he said. "You got to do it for yourself because I know at the end of the day, if I want to get mine, I have to still sit down and do my work.”

More than a dozen young men, between 16 and 19 years old, attend classes at the Fresh Start program. Each one has made some bad decisions and is determined to turn his life around.

“Sometimes they come in a little reluctant," said Kenneth Talley, a carpentry instructor. "Then they get creative and start making their own products. That’s when they start getting interested.”

Working in the wood and metal class teaches them other lessons.

“It gives them patience," Talley said. "It teaches them how to follow directions, make a plan for constructing whatever they’re constructing. [It] also gives them gratification after they finish. They see the end of their work.”

Once they’re motivated, says Fresh Start Director Toni Lemons, the young men are eager to absorb knowledge.

The program also helps them navigate their way in the job market. The Workforce Development class, for example, teaches them how to write a resume and prepare for a job interview.

“This is where they build their soft skills," Lemons said. "They’re writing resumes. They’re learning how to do cover letters, learning basic things: how to respond to questions in interviews, body language and gestures and how that can potentially impact you when you’re in an interview."

In the Life Skills class, students learn other skills they need to succeed in career and personal life.

“How to tie a tie, which is very important when it comes to going on a job interview." Lemons said. "They learn how to budget, to be able to maintain their finances.”

Outdoor classes are as important as indoor ones, and so are community events where Fresh Start students mentor younger kids, which helps them gain confidence to become role models themselves.

“The very important thing with that is that a lot of our young people don’t really experience that on a day-to-day basis," Lemons said. "So our job is to help them to get connected with their community.”

At the end of the 11-month-long program, Fresh Start helps its graduates, like 18-year-old Tayron Gerald, find a job.

"They treat you like adults," Gerald said. "The whole program is like a career. They give you a job. They give you a voice. In a traditional high school, you don’t really get a voice. I still want to become an engineer. I believe I can do it.”

Lemons has high hopes for the teenager's future.

“This is a young man who, throughout facing adversity, continued to push forward," she said. "He’s a hard worker. He’s very dedicated. He understands opportunities, and one of the things that he does is capitalize on them. Now he’s working in a receptionist position.”

Gerald believes the program works because it understands what troubled young men need to break their old, bad habits. Fresh Start is designed to help troubled young men realize they're part of the community and truly have a chance to make a fresh start.

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