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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.

By Jina MooreCorrespondent / March 16, 2010

Mentoring Today, a project by Whitney Louchheim (l.) and Penelope Spain, grew out of a tutoring program they created while at American University studying law. The nonprofit matches volunteer mentors with youths serving time at a Washington D.C. juvenile lockup.

Michael Bonfigli/Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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In their first job out of law school, Whitney Louchheim and Penelope Spain worked, literally, in a closet. With neither windows nor air conditioning, “my wrists stuck to the keyboard when I typed,” Ms. Louchheim remembers. The two had borrowed the closet-cum-office from a nonprofit group in an unsavory neighborhood.

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“We were right next to … the biggest open-air heroin market in D.C.,” Ms. Spain recalls. Their location was difficult for outsiders to comprehend. “Our parents would come to visit, and they were terrified,” Spain says. “My father just looked at me like, ‘This is what has become of my daughter and her law degree?’ ”

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’s 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’s juvenile lockup, then called Oak Hills.

In 2004, when the women first began planning their project, roughly one-third of the young men who’d 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. “Legal issues, housing, family, friends, girlfriend,” Spain says. “All of those things we were involved in because we had earned their trust.”

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 – lucrative internships or prestigious clerkships – they started Mentoring Today with a couple of credit cards and a promise they made to each other at Spain’s kitchen table.

“We said, ‘I’ll hire you if you hire me,’ ” Spain says. “It was a deal.”

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 “success” 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’t written off. When one of Spain’s early mentoring subjects returned to a lockup, she still saw progress: He’d learned to read and write and could write letters to her.

Mentoring To­day’s willingness to stand by its young people is “the biggest proof” of its success, says

Da­vid Muhammad, chief of committed services for the Department of Youth Rehab­il­itation Ser­­vices (DYRS) in the district.

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