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.

Michael Bonfigli/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
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.

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.

“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.

“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.”

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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