From Juvenile Detention to Straight A’s, with the Help of a Mentor

The Christian Science Monitor

By Jessica Mendoza

The fight that sent Isabella to juvenile hall at age 11 was neither her first nor her last.

She spent six weeks locked up, but the shadow of the experience stretched for years. Middle and high school were marked by a series of school suspensions and transfers, fighting with schoolmates, and conflicts with her parents, says Isabella, who asked that her last name not be used. She also remained on probation for more than four years.

Then in November, Isabella met Yessenia Ruiz, a mentor coordinator with the Youth Justice Mentoring Program at the nonprofit Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, which supports youth who’ve had contact with the justice system. In the months that followed, Ms. Ruiz became Isabella’s go-to person for everything, from help with homework to grabbing burgers after school to relationship advice.

Her presence, Isabella says, was transformative.

“I think I’ve changed because I’ve got someone to talk to, someone that’s on my side and that would understand me,” says Isabella. Now 17, she plans to receive her high school diploma on stage next spring.

“I tell [Yessenia] stuff that’s been going on, and she’s like, ‘You’ve got me. Don’t worry,’ ” she adds. “And I’ll feel much better about myself.”

On any given day, more than 50,000 minors – more than 70 percent of whom come from minority communities – are detained in residential placement facilities across the United States, according to the latest report from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

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