I don’t usually ask questions for group interaction when speaking in juvenile facilities. Recently, I started a session by casually asking, “If you could change one thing about your past, what would it be?” A few of the boys responded without taking time to think about their answers, but a younger youth seemed to wrestle internally before sharing his answer in only two words…
I was a bit shocked by his answer but the other youth began to heckle him with names before I could intervene in his defense. How could someone so young have experience such heartache that he only wished that he’d never been born? Two words that would have silenced many rooms were greeted with a harsh response that afternoon as if his cry for help was in vain.
But what about the mercy? It’s as if we peek around the corner at devastation only to shrink back and look away as if what we saw was never seen.
I don’t have a pocket full of answers for situations like these. We will likely agree that it is sad and unfortunate before moving on because of our own struggles. But what about mercy? Do we peak around the corner of devastation and shrink back as if it was not seen?
The merciful will be shown mercy.
I have been taught this my entire life and can only imagine what might happen when we begin to intentionally look into the eyes of those desperate for love and acceptance. Not with a glance while passing from one room to another, but with a mercy that can pierce through the deepest pain.
With wisdom that comes from experience and a mercy that is superior to judgment, we can make a difference and spare someone from experiencing more than they can handle.
What one thing would I change about my past?
It’s only fair that I share my answer as I hope you will. I would have wanted to understand the beauty of serving those in need that were always outside my circle of influence much sooner.
I will continue to reach beyond myself to demonstrate the love I have seen in the eyes of many who believe they have nothing to give in return. It’s quite beautiful and I assure you, there’s plenty to go around.
I recently stumbled upon the words of a Franciscan Benediction. Words that can only be embraced by hearts that are bold enough to trust God by faith regardless of any pain, doubt or discomfort.
A Franciscan Benediction
May God bless us with discomfort
At easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships
So that we may live from deep within our hearts.
May God bless us with anger
At injustice, oppression, and exploitation of God’s creations
So that we may work for justice, freedom, and peace.
May God bless us with tears
To shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, hunger, and war,
So that we may reach out our hands to comfort them and
To turn their pain into joy.
And may God bless us with just enough foolishness
To believe that we can make a difference in the world,
So that we can do what others claim cannot be done:
To bring justice and kindness to all our children and all our neighbors who are poor.
(Jeff) What do you see as some of the main connecting points with the youth through the assembly program shared with the youth?
(Leader) “The real life stories hit home and are relatable in such a way that there is a personal connection. Whether it’s a youth who struggles at home, a youth without a home, or a youth with a hard life that has been difficult to endure. You help them see beyond their past. It may be a youth who is acting up and in trouble, or someone who isn’t on task, they begin to display leadership roles because you show that you believe in them. I will remind them of a story you shared from time to time to jar their memory so they don’t forget the feelings they had during your visit.”
Attitudes change as you continue to speak. Even those that would not be interested initially, they begin to open up. We see their eyes begin to widen and their postures change as your words resonate within them and they begin to realize, ‘He’s talking about me, he’s speaking to me. He’s not talking to one of the other guys, he’s talking to me. I’m the kid he’s talking about; he’s trying to reach me.’ They come around and they are with you because they know you have heart and it shows.”
(Jeff) Is there a way to measure the effectiveness of an assembly program? Both, immediate and long term, where you and the staff may notice?
(Leader) I shared with you how two of the youth asked for your address so they could write and thank you for what you shared. They want to correspond with you on a different level.
(Jeff) Before leaving I asked if they would consider one thing for me. One of the youth responded, “What’s that Jeff?” I didn’t make mention of the comment but I have thought of the words spoken many times since then. In your experience, does this happen with a majority of programs?”
(Leader) No, I’m talking about your program. We have speakers where the youth tune them out with little or no interest. This was the first time many of our kids had seen you and they were like, ‘Wow, he was good.’”
(Jeff) What would you think would you share with facility leaders who have not met us or heard the message as a motivating reason to schedule our assembly program?
(Leader) “First, they need to know you are all about the kids. You’re not doing this for the fame, the glory, or the accolades. There is no agenda other than they will see you are there for their youth. When you speak, the youth don’t see a correctional officer, a probation officer, a judge, or a jury. They see someone with a desire to accept them as they are. They listen because they know you don’t have a motive. You help them believe that what you see in them is for real.
(Jeff) The youth were very responsive and I appreciate this very much. I did encourage them to embrace the staff and show an appreciation for the investments that each of you make. I hope you noticed a difference from some of the youth. I have seen the sacrifices being made from each of you to meet these youth and I am honored to work alongside you in any way possible. If the youth embrace the investments of each of you, the positive impact could potentially change their lives forever. I will do what I can to give my very best to many who are being given the the very least. It’s my privilege to meet each group and I thank you for what you do.
I spoke on the phone with a DJJ residential superintendent as follow-up to a program shared in March. The leaders understand everything that takes place in a facility and they know what works and what doesn’t. He was gracious to elaborate on what he saw as a positive outcome to the time spent with his youth.
This is the first part of the phone conversation. We will share a couple answers at a time in hopes to shed some light on what happens when several come together to work it out for the sake of a kid. I had never asked this question but I wanted to start by asking the obvious, “Is it possible for you to know if I did a good job? I had no idea how he might respond because we had never shared in a conversation prior to this phone conversation. The risk was worth taking as you will read in the answers shared.
(Jeff) Is it possible for you to know if I did a good job?
(Leader) Yes, it’s seen in their faces when they walk out of the room, as if reality just sat in. They hear these messages in residential, but when they hear it from the outside, from someone without any connection to the facility or state department, it’s different. You connect with them and they begin to act out the potential that you point out to them. The youth begin to step up and help others who might continue to struggle or who gets in trouble. They will become mindful of their need to encourage another youth, “Hey look, we’ve got to turn this thing around. You can control this.” Because you took the time to help them there is a shift in their attitude and they want to keep the positive momentum going. Before a group goes in compared to when they come out, they are different. I tell you, I’ve seen it.”
(Jeff) Do you see the change personally, or is it something you hear from staff members?
Both. Their actions demonstrate a potential that you are able to bring out in them. They see a clean slate and we see a look of determination and a belief in their potential, “Wow, I think I can change, I can do this now.” There is a difference, I promise you.
(Jeff) Are the changes short term or do their actions continue over time?
The impact isn’t momentary, it stays with them and we see the the difference carry forward. Some begin to step up and help other youth who continue to struggle or remain in trouble and will rally the others, “Hey look, we’ve got to turn this thing around. You can control this.”
(Jeff) Before leaving, one of your assistants was sharing with me how they wanted us to return because of how the youth listen so intently. He said when he walked by and saw and saw the entire group listening so intently, all one the same page, he knew that he needed to reschedule another visit. When they’re on the same page together, this creates an opportunity between youth and staff like none other. Is this somewhat true?
(Leader) That’s all true. That’s all the way true and there it does influence the entire group. When you come you make them feel like somebody really does care. They see your commitment and they know that there’s no underlying issue. You are not prying into their offense, their family life, but you genuinely care about them. They see this as your only motive and they are willing to accept you as you are.
(Jeff) “What would you say are some of the connection points with the youth during the program?”
You don’t come in and say, ‘Look, here’s how it is’ and then rush to get them out. You take the time to bring out the good instead of waiting for someone else to point it out. You not only tell them, but you help them see for themselves without force or judgment. They don’t see someone who works for a company who wants to sell them something. They see you as a credible authority figure that comes in expecting nothing in return. You make them feel comfortable enough to let their guards down. It ultimately changes everything from their individual therapy to group sessions and their individual skills based on their potential. They reach a place where they later admit, ‘Man, somebody really does care about me and opened my eyes to see that I’m not just another youth without hope in a juvenile residential facility.’”
So to answer your question if there is a way for us to know if you did good, the answer is yes and it helps a lot.
It’s a difficult story to tell from my point of view. I decided early on that it would not be fair to speak on behalf of this group of youth. When they have something to say, however, I am eager to pass it on as a testimony to the positive results of seeds that are sown.
It’s a system where questions overshadow answers. Kids are without self-esteem and value; society is unaware of the potential of what will happen when community works together for the sake of “ONE” who is lost.
Not a night goes by where I do not lay my head on my pillow and think of these who are less fortunate than my own children. When my heart is overcome by fear of the unknown, I must find rest as I place my trust in God for the strength needed to run after one lost soul at a time.
With each small step of progress, we are grateful. Though it may seem small in the eyes of many, it is a celebrated victory for those fighting the fight. We fight for a population of kids filled with great beauty and promise through a mission that is not in vain. We know each investment made is making a difference.
No matter how things appear in the moment, we must not be defeated by temporary distractions or hurdles. There may be more questions than answers but unless we move forward through the unknown, we will never know the possibility promised to each of us unless we take one more step by faith.
Will you read the words written by a DJJ facility administer? The first was written in 2010, while at a different facility from where he is now. As stated previously, I have incredible respect for the leaders working with these youth. I hope you will see his heart through the words written following the most recent visit to his facility in January, earlier this year. Both notes speak on behalf of a mission we KNOW is effectively touching the hearts of teens, one small step at a time.
I was motivated by the comments from both staff and youth following your visit to Eckerd Challenge Juvenile Residential facility. Based on the feedback, the youth were blessed and we can see the “seed” sown into their lives starting to manifest.
Programs like yours are a necessity for programs like ours. It is important for our youth to realize and understand their self worth. Your message validates what we believe… These trouble teens are not throw-away and their lives are worth something. Please come back next time you are in town.
Mike Smith – Superintendent
I wanted to thank you again for your inspiring presentation to our young men. They were very appreciative as well as motivated by your message. Not only were they impressed but so were the staff. It was wonderful how you were able to address the group in a “holistic” manner by addressing them from a physical, mental, emotional, educational and spiritual aspect. Your visit was on time as we had been discussing some of the same things with them over the past week and to hear it from an outside source with the passion/compassion that you delivered it, was powerful.
In speaking with the youth after you left, the majority wanted to know, “When is he coming back”? I cannot tell you what an impression you made and left at Union Residential Juvenile Facility. I can truly and honestly say your program is one that needs to be heard by as many young people as possible. It was good to hear a sincere person tell young people they do count and are loved. You connected with them in a way that is crucial in their reintegration into society. They now can believe there are people out there that believe they can and have changed as well as pulling for them to succeed. I am grateful for your support when you expressed the benefits of residential programming in giving young people a second chance if they would only take advantage of programs. You spoke highly of Florida’s DJJ and how they opened a door for you. It was great move!
Once again, thank you for what was an inspiring weekend. I will be sure to pass on/recommend your program to any and everybody.
Union Juvenile Residential Facility
Some more letters from the youth we visit in the juvenile justice system:
I want to start by saying your children are very lucky to have a dad who understands. but your very inspiring.
Last night I prayed that God will show his self to me in words an spoke the words I was looking for.
Its always good to no I’m loved just as well as you are. I don’t know if you can write me or not but I would like to get something. Thanks for taking the time out to read my letter.”
It was nice that you took your time out to come talk to us (indistinguishable) a lot out of your speaking, thats amazing that you try to go to every single facility to just talk to the Boys and girls. I think that you are a very good person to do what you do help the juvenile kids in the state of Florida. Im glad, like I said, that you came to talk to me I got a lot out of what you said.
Throughout each facility I visit I sit in the back and write in my journal. I often write prayers for the facility. I pray specifically for the staff, for every heart in the room, and for God’s love to fall heavy.
Sometimes I have to pray and surrender my fear to God and tell Him I know that He is all powerful, and that His truth overcomes anything. One thing that really stands out to me is body language. I noticed a boy sitting in the at the end of the table closest to the front. He was turned away from my dad, something very normal for the beginning of a program.
I see how postures begin to change as he speaks and shares stories of brokenness and hope. I love seeing how their eyes will gradually begin to look up. Eventually they all begin to look up and face him. By the end, every eye is watching as each one listens intently and allows truth to overwhelm their hearts. This is the first step. Embrace.
My dad always quotes John 3:16. My heart softens as I look around the room to see eyes closed, and many heads bowed. But in a different posture than the way they were in the beginning. As they simply mouth the words of God’s love through Jesus, I see a sense of security come over many.
They know what truth is, it’s in their blood. I feel as if we all come to a common ground when this verse is quoted. He doesn’t ask them to say it. They just do do. He explains how John 3:16 is the only way he can look into their eyes and believe with confidence, “You are Loved.”
When my dad took the bagels given to him only minutes before we arrived, I absolutely had no idea what he was going to do with them. He approached the first boy, who was turned away from him at the beginning. He reached out to shake his hand, he looked him in the eyes and he said, “You are loved.” The boy responded with a “Thank you,” a head nod and the words, “So are you.”
He opened the bag and asked if they would each take a small piece and be part of what took place earlier that morning. The first boy tore off a piece and ate it. This continued as he walked throughout the entire room to meet each one personally. One boy stood up for a hug and thanked him for his words.
After finishing, there was a small piece left over and another still in the bag. He walked over to the staff member, thanked him for his work and offered him the last piece. The man insisted on tearing off a small piece, just like everyone else. With one still in the bag, my dad asked what he should do with the extra bagel. Without delay one of the boys said, “Go back to Lorraine, give it to her!“ Another boy said “Yeah! Go back! Tell her ‘She is loved’”
They weren’t joking. They really wanted her to have the last bagel.
I am sometimes called to the front to be introduced. As I walked to the front of this room, I looked into their eyes and I noticed they were looking back. They were not disrespectful. They were not looking at me rudely or inappropriately. It was special.
My dad always ask if it’s alright to pray before leaving. The groups always answer, “Yes, pray.” Today, he asked me to pray. This is something I had never done with guys… but only a few girls facilities.
After I prayed we were about to leave when a boy asked if we could tell Lorraine she was loved for him. My dad took his phone and asked the boy if he would share the words himself. He could record his words and play them back for her at the park. Several shared words of encouragement while speaking into his phone. One boy spoke of how Proverbs has the answers. One boy wanted her to know that she wasn’t alone. One encouraged her to be strong and never give up.
They sensed community and understood a simple way to give back. On our way out several asked if they could shake my dad’s hand again, a few stood up out of respect, and another asked for a hug as he thanked him for speaking to them.
I watched as postures changed… I watched them come from a place of pride to a common ground where we all stood together. The bagels created community and everyone was encouraged by taking time to care about someone else. Love was given and received.
The pages of my journal are filled with words written from the back of many facilities and they are precious to me. I look forward to a day when I will look back and read all that was written and I am reminded of the ways God’s love overcomes all differences.
Driving to our first facility Sunday morning, we were in downtown Jacksonville. With the facility only blocks up the street, I saw a homeless woman inside a small park on the corner. I pulled over and walked across the street to meet her face to face.
I have encountered this picture countless times, but something was different. Only minutes from the residential facility where I would speak, I wanted to know if this woman might have advice for this group of youth from her own life experiences.
The park was surrounded by a tall black gated fence. She stood just inside at the water fountain filling her small bucket with a water bottle. I introduced myself and told her I was sharing with several juvenile facilities and wondered if she might have a few words of wisdom for the group of incarcerated youth just up the street. She didn’t take long to begin sharing, ”Stay safe… Make good choices… Stay in church, it’s important to stay in church.”
When her bucket was full, she began to clean the water fountain with a small rag she had just washed. I told her my name and she said hers. I asked if I could shake her hand before leaving. With reluctance she admitted her hands were wet and dirty. When I said it didn’t matter, she wiped them on her sweatshirt before reaching out to mine that were extended through the fence. I thanked her for her time and wisdom and let her know how the short time with her was truly an honor for me.
Walking back to the car, I saw a young man and two women on another corner across from the park. I asked my daughter, Courtney, to wait. They were dressed for church and I wanted to speak to them as well. I introduced myself and shared why I was downtown that morning. I asked if they were familiar with the juvenile facility up the street. Again, they were not. I asked, “Who’s going to help these youth when they are released to take their first step back into society?” He didn’t have an answer but he did share his story.
He had been incarcerated before he realized the outcome of his irresponsibility was being shouldered by those closest to him. He began making better choices, surrounded himself with friends who were stronger than his weaknesses, and decided to stay close to those who cared most about him. He was thankful for another chance that he admitted was only because of God’s love. I told him I had no idea why I walked over to speak to him but he replied, “You were lead to speak with me.”
He was standing in front of a church where they gave bread to the homeless. The table had been stacked high earlier but now only four remained: three loaves and a package of bagels. He suggested the bagels for the youth. With the bagels in hand, I returned to the car wondering how I might share the four blueberry bagels with the youth.
Within a few steps, I knew the first bagel was for the woman in the park. I crossed the street and called her name. She returned to the gate where we had met only moments earlier. I showed her the bagels and explained how I planned to share them with the youth along with the words she had spoken. I asked if she would please take the first one. She took one and thanked me as I returned to the car to finally make our way to the residential facility.
I began the program by sharing what happened on our way to the facility that morning and shared the words spoken from the heart of a weathered, homeless woman in a park just up the street. “Be safe… Make good choices… Stay in church … always stay in church.”
When it was time to meet each youth, I grabbed the bagels and asked if they would take a piece when I got to them and take part of the story that was being written. We envisioned a community much larger than any of us in that room. After meeting the last youth, there was one bagel left.
I know the guys would have gladly shared it, but the idea was never suggested. Instead, when I asked, “What should I do with the last bagel?” one of the boys said, “Take it back to the park and give it to Lorraine.” (This was her name.) I did not expect this and was honest to admit I was drained. I had just given all I had and was too tired to return to the park. The boy spoke up again, “You have to take it back to Lorraine.” I agreed to return to the park but before leaving, I asked if they would share a few words for me to record and play back for her. Seven guys shared words of encouragement with a woman they had never met as two separate worlds were beginning to come together.
We returned to the park, but this time Courtney was not going to stay behind. She wanted to meet this woman. We walked to the fence before calling her name. She was gracious to walk back to meet us again. I introduced Courtney and then asked if she remembered my name. She did and answered, “Jeff.” I thanked her for remembering and let her know that I shared her wisdom with the youth, along with the bagels. When there was one bagel left over at the end, I asked the youth what I should do with it. They insisted that I take it back to the park and give it to Lorraine.
I told her about the messages recorded and I stretched my arm through the bars for her to hear on my phone. She leaned in closer and with each youth that spoke, she expressed joy with a soft smile, and a gentle laugh. I reminded her that she was loved and how she made a difference in the lives of others in spite of any given circumstance.
Today was not about a gift that was given to create a story. Today was the potential of what can take place when we invest in others unlike ourselves. Though they may never meet face to face, I believe seeds were planted for dreams to rise up to reach beyond all differences to see what makes us more alike… one’s heart.
Today I was humbled to encounter three completely different worlds and make a small investment into each one.
Today three separate groups demonstrated compassion for others they have never met.
Today individuals displayed mercy for someone in need in spite of their own difficulties.
Today hope and love broke through barriers to overcome boundaries.
I always look forward to seeing familiar faces. I love walking into a facility and someone remembers us. At a girls facility, we walked into the room where they were waiting for us. Two girls were excited to see us and proudly let us know they recognized us from a previous trip back in July. Youth often remember my dad but this is only my second trip and it is unusual that I see someone for a second time in a different facility.
At the end of the program, a girl walked over to where I was sitting, reached out her hand and said, ”Hey! you are loved!” I grabbed her hand and I replied “Thank you very much, so are you!” She looked at me and asked, ”You don’t remember me do you?” But I did! During the trip in July, we were at a detention facility where two girls in the front row were laughing and talking to one another throughout most of the program. They were finally asked to leave by one of the guards, making it one of the most difficult programs my dad shared.
On our way out the two girls were standing outside the door with a guard. Both girls apologized for laughing and explained it was not because of the program that they were laughing, and they were sorry for their disrespect. They asked if we would pray with them. We prayed and were on our way.
The girl now shaking my hand, asking if I remembered her, was one of the two girls who were asked to leave that day…the two girls we prayed with on our way out. I was glad to see her again and I loved that she remembered me. I loved even more that she was the one sharing the words with me, “Hey, you are loved.” I couldn’t help but smile.
Who would have thought that we would see these girls again? Girls from what may have been one of the most difficult programs shared. What are the chances they would remember us and be excited to see and speak to us again? Back in July, we prayed with these two girls because they asked. Today I spoke with each of them because they reached out.
It was special to meet them where they were in July, and it was special to see their familiar faces again today.
Wednesday, January 2
Volusia Regional Detention 9:00 AM and 10:30 AM
Daytona Juvenile Residential Facility 1:30 PM
Thursday, January 3
Volusia Halfway House 10:00 AM
Duval Regional Detention 2:00 PM
Friday, January 4
St. Johns Youth Academy 9:30 AM
Hastings Residential 12:00 PM
St. Johns Correctional 1:30 PM
Saturday, January 5
Union Residential 10:00 AM
Tiger Success Center 1:00 PM
Sunday, January 6
Impact House Jacksonville residential 10:00 AM
Duval Halfway Residential 5:30 PM
Monday, January 7
Alachua Girls Academy 10:00 AM
Marion Regional Detention 2:00 PM
Tuesday, January 8
Marion Juvenile Corrections Residential 10:00 AM
Challenge Juvenile Residential 1:30 PM
” If you reach one or two of our youth, we want to find a way for you to work us into the schedule during this trip in our region.” Facility Superintendent
On January 1st we fly to Florida for a week to speak in fifteen DJJ facilities throughout the NE region of the state. My daughter, Courtney, a college freshman, is traveling with me and we look forward to every opportunity presented to meet each youth right where they are…hand to hand, eye to eye, and heart to heart.
It is a privilege to work alongside these leaders and staff. I love their commitment to inspire these youth in what is like “revolving door.” When a bed or cell is open it represents the completion of one’s sentence. Within hours of the release, another youth enters to begin serving time that has the potential for life change. These leaders are “unsung heroes” and I am a better man because I am able to call them, “friend.” Pray for the leaders, staff, teachers, and guards. They give of themselves when the giving is not easy. All for the sake of the potential of ONE.
Not to finish 2012 strong – but support to begin 2013!
With only hours until 2013, your support can make a difference in ways to reach beyond human understanding. We are planting seeds of HOPE and TRUTH of God’s unconditional LOVE. We may not see the HARVEST, but we will know the difference that is made all in due time. We fly out tomorrow morning, January1st and we are in need of support to help with the expense of this trip. Will you consider a year-end donation to help us in this incredible mission?
We must trust God for financial support the same way we challenge each youth to embrace and trust those prepared to take make investments and take the first step toward a life of freedom and all things new. It takes faith when we are stretched beyond our comfort but we can’t take a single step without believing others will come alongside to help us help this very special group of “children.” (aka At-Risk Youth)
Click here to make a donation and help us in the mission we have CALLED! We would be honored by your support toward the work of Upward Bound Outreach. Happy New Year!