I recently had one of the best and most inspiring experiences of my career. I was asked to speak at the Clark County Juvenile Detention Center in Springfield Ohio, just a few miles from my home. The day which included two more talks at Clark State Community College with High School students and the general public was sponsored and put together by an incredible organization called Project Jericho. I was a part of a series called Inside the walls outside the box. Where Artists are asked to come and speak to youth in detention then to speak to at risk youth, some of whom have just been in detention but are now out. Project Jericho, recognized by former first lady Laura Bush as one of the best programs of it's kind in the country, is a shining example of how determined people who value our youth can really make a difference in changing the course of a teenager's life. Setting them upon a path of hope instead of destruction.
I spoke to approximately 40 or so teens who were incarcerated usually for short periods of time. I found them to be some of the brightest and most intelligent teens I have ever worked with. All of them had read my latest novel, "The Death of Jayson Porter." All had to pass a comprehension test on the book in order to be a part of the group that met with me. All of them wrote reflections inspired by the book and created amazing artwork also inspired by the book. Their questions, and comments were incredibly insightful, filled with a kind of intellectual curiousity and wisdom usually not seen amongst that age group. A magistrate from the court sat in for most of the entire two hour workshop and she told the kids that what they had just participated in was akin to a college lecture and they should be very proud of themselves. She was absolutely right. We discussed the book on the highest of levels. The youth had not just read it, but completely internalized every broad and small stroke of my pen. All of the teens told me over and over again how Jayson and his plight mirrored their lives to a T. They brought up subtleties that made me wrack my brain to come up with an answer that would match the high level of their question. These kids were sharp, I believe gifted. Yes, I know not what you would think you would find at a Juvenile detention center, but that is the beauty of the program called Project Jericho. It instills a sense of confidence and hope infused with responsibility and what I feel is the most essential ingredient, RESPECT. Every teacher, guard and staff worker in attendance treated these teens with respect. And I believe because of this the teens treated everyone in attendance the same way. It was amazing for me to see the mutual respect and understanding shown between the adults and the teens. These kids were valued for once in their lives, they were not told they were stupid,that they were just criminals, that they would never amount to anything. Through project Jericho and the commited director, judges and magistrate of the Clark County Juvenile system, these young teens are getting a new lease on life. This is not punishment for the sake of punishment, this is a real learning experience that is actually changing and transforming lives.
There was such a huge disconnect for me when it was time for me to go. Watching these same kids who had just conducted, and I am being completey honest here, one of the most intellectually astute and challenging book discussions I have ever been a part of, such a huge disconnect for me having to watch them being led to their pods, their cells. Knowing they would have to go back to being locked up. It just didn't compute in my mind. It was like we all should have just gone across the street to Starbucks and continued our discussion on writing. Discussing the finer points of plot and character development that we began inside those walls of confinement. But as I write this I realize that those walls, at least for the youth I met are actually walls of freedom. Walls of hope. Walls of encouragement and walls of love. I am going to follow up with these kids, I am going to make sure that they stay on the right track. I now feel a responsibility to them. And I hope that they will read this and feel a responsibilty to me as well. There are many novels and books of poetry I look forward to reading that I know will be written by some of those teens. I want them to know that I am clearing off space on my bookshelf right now.
Don't let me down now, when you get out, I am expecting wonderful things from you all. You have shown your intelligence your artistry and your ability to be successful and productive members of society.
You can do it, I know that you can!!
*I will post pictures of the visit when I get them. Please check out the project Jericho website and see what is possible, see how one committed organization is helping to turn young lives around. www.clarkstatefoundation.org/project-jericho.html