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Difference Maker

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.

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“They’re so consistent with the young people, even after some of them get back into trouble,” he says. “They don’t quit. They didn’t stop and say, ‘He got rearrested, so I’m going on to the next one.’ They remain with these young people, often even after they’re out of DYRS, out of our jurisdiction or custody.”

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Both Louchheim and Spain credit their mothers for the path they’ve found themselves on. Spain grew up in Napa, Calif., where her mom helped immigrant women at a nonprofit. Spain’s friends growing up were Latinos, and she remembers “fighting verbally with various folks in the community, with my teachers, with my stepfather” over immigration issues.

“With my mother working at a nonprofit,” she says, “I always had an eye out for the most forgotten segment of a population or the segment folks don’t want to see.”

Louchheim was raised in Gettysburg, Pa., where her mother taught native American art history. “Growing up, we would go to a lot of reservations,” Louchheim says. “I learned that there was unbelievable poverty in this country, that it wasn’t really going anywhere, and that people didn’t really know about it.”

Most of the youths helped by Mentoring Today come from the east side of the Anacostia River. “It’s predominantly black, forgotten, and poor, with high unemployment rates, low education rates – you name it,” 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 – 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: “It’s not rocket science. It’s going in and saying, ‘I am one individual who will come out here, see you every week, and listen to you.’ We have no further agenda”

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.

“We 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,” she recalls.

Mentoring Today’s unique approach also worked well for Brandon, one of Mentoring Today’s 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.

“My middle-school teacher told me I wasn’t going to graduate from high school,” he says, “so I was happy.”

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, “he saw the ferociousness come out,” Spain says. “He leaned back and said, ‘Y’all are like goldfish that bite!’ ”

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