Come With Me To An Approved School

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What comes to mind when you see the word 'juvenile'?

At the end of 2015, my team and I had the privilege to reach out to youth from different states through Approved Schools, residential institutions to which young people are sent by a court, usually for committing criminal offences but sometimes because they are deemed to be beyond parental control.  Sadly, it results in these youth having labels attached; ‘beyond control’, ‘delinquent’, ‘criminal’ to name a few.

Naturally, I thought that it would be difficult to control them, get their attention and connect with them.

I was wrong.

The youth I met are hungry to learn, hungry for friendship, for care, for love. What I saw in them is a cry for a friend and mentor to lead and guide them, to help them see that they too are good for something, to tell them their past is not going to determine their future. To give them the courage to make right decisions, and to change the course of their life.

They are just like you and me, they have dreams, they have potential, and they have good hearts.  The more I talk to them the more I wonder “how did they end up here?".  I guess somewhere along the way they made wrong decisions, they were influenced by wrong company. 

But as Professor X aptly told his younger self in the movie X-Men: Days of the Future Past, “just because someone stumbles and loses their way, it doesn’t mean they’re lost forever," I’m confident that a person’s past shouldn’t determine their future. 

There are many more youth like them in Approved Schools across the country and I look forward to reaching out to all of them because our next generation matters. 

It may cost us to reach out to them, but it’ll cost us even more if we don’t. 

It warms my heart to read thank you notes from our youth.

It reads:
“To all our facilitators, hi, how are you? I am Slyvia, on behalf of everyone who attended this program, I would like to thank all of you for spending 3 days of your time with us. Thank you for teaching us Microsoft Word, Microsoft Powerpoint and Microsoft Excel. I like this program very much, I hope you all will come and run this program again in the future. Thank you to all of you.”

"Nice to meet you again! Thank you for everything teacher!! Thank you for remembering me! I am very touched. I hope all of you will continue to be successful in everything that you all do. Thank you for sharing your knowledge with me and my friends.  I will continue to apply what I’ve learnt”
It’s nice to know our volunteers left with something valuable from the whole experience too. 

When posed the question: What have you learnt today about yourself and the students? These were some of the responses:

“I don’t see criminals, but people.
I felt that they are full of positive energy, and that they can be good people.
They are fortunate to be in an environment that helps them focus on their education.”
“I thought they won’t be cooperative, but I was wrong!
I learnt to continue working hard for my own dreams.”
“These students are special – they have positive energy, always proactive, and I learnt from them
I had a certain mind-set and prejudice before coming here but I am humbled after interacting with them. A lot of what they shared came from the heart.”
“There was a student who was mischievous throughout the session but when it came to talking about dreams I managed to engage with her well and at the end of the session, she said she didn’t want it to end. 
The students are smart, they have big dreams and are really regular people like us.”
“For it was an experience “Learn to unlearn” - unlearn things about myself
My group wanted me to write motivation quotes for them.”
“I learnt not to put ourselves above them but communicate to them at their level and be sincere
They even wrote me a thank you note which touched my heart
They may be here by the choices they made, but there is always hope.”

So what comes to your mind when you see the word 'juvenile'? 
Does this label stir curiosity? Does it move you?  Does it unsettle you?
Regardless of how we may feel, I want to learn to appreciate lives and love people for who they are and not what I expect them to be.  
I want to reach out to our nation's youth and help them see hope for the better future. 
I welcome you to join me.   

Jee Wang
Service Learning & Volunteer Management