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Helping Teens in Turn-Around

Mentoring young offenders, USC students learn to ‘never judge a book by its cover’

By Pamela J. Johnson
June 1, 2006

Helping Teens in Turn-Around

Arms crossed and looking contemplative, Mariela Membreno recalled the day police arrived at her high school and hauled her off to jail.

“I was walking in the hall and the cops came up to me,” said the 17-year-old inside a classroom at Western Community Day School near USC. “One said, ‘Give it to me. Give me the gun.' So I handed him my backpack and he found the .38-revolver.”

Mariela paused to study the face of College student Anne Cecconi, who sat beside her. Cecconi was Mariela’s mentor in a program run by the College’s Joint Educational Project. Cecconi appeared concerned, not disgusted as Mariela had expected. She pressed on.

“The cops put handcuffs on me and some of the kids started laughing,” said the wafer-thin teen with long wavy black hair and hazel eyes. “I was mad. I was just holding the gun for my brother. They took me to jail…I don’t ever want to be there again.”

Cecconi, 22, told Mariela she wasn't there to judge.

“We’ve all made mistakes," she said. "I’ve made mistakes, too. That’s how we learn.”

Cecconi regularly visits the alternative high school, where students who have served time in a juvenile detention center and are on probation earn their diploma. Each week, she meets with students such as Mariela to tutor them with their homework. Or sometimes, they put away the books and just talk.

JEP began partnering with Western in 2000. Right now, about 20 USC students, mostly sociology majors taking juvenile delinquency or deviance courses, visit the high school each week.

Susan Harris, JEP’s academic development director, said the partnership serves a dual purpose.

“Providing one-on-one support makes a big difference in people’s lives,” Harris said. “And our USC students learn something about sociology by directly working in the community.”

Many of the USC mentors are sociology lecturer Karen Sternheimer’s students. Sternheimer gives her students the option of volunteering at Western, then writing their term paper based on what they learn.

“They get to work with the kids close up,” Sternheimer said. “They see the complexity of the person who has to overcome the stigma of being labeled a juvenile delinquent. They find that no one is all bad or all evil. There is goodness in everyone. From what my students tell me, they can relate to a lot of these students.”

Keri Valentine, a Western administrator, said the USC volunteers inspire her students.

“The kids look up to them,” Valentine said. “We have some tough students here. But they listen to the USC students and don’t bring up their negative activity when they’re here.”

Valentine said some USC mentors were particularly outstanding. One donated a set of encyclopedias. Another, Maurice Burman, organized a tour of the USC campus.

With Burman as the guide, a busload of Western students arrived at USC, explored the campus, met professors and ate pizza.

“USC is a big part of our community, but they had never been there,” Valentine said of last year’s field trip. “You would have thought they had spent the day at Disneyland. They’re still talking about it.”

Burman, 23, graduated from USC in June 2005 with a degree in sociology. He’s currently a master’s student at California State University, Dominguez Hills and teaching at Fremont High School.

Burman counted the volunteer program among his most valuable experiences at USC. He said he organized the campus tour to get the Western students interested in attending college.

“Most of the students had never been on a college campus,” Burman said. “They had no idea what it was like being a college student. I wanted to give them an idea.”

Burman said he’s pursuing a career counseling troubled youths. He’s earning his master’s in education with an emphasis in counseling. His volunteer work at Western was an eye-opener, he said.

“I know it’s a cliché, but I learned to never judge a book by its cover,” Burman said. “I thought I was going to a school with sort of crazy, bad kids. But I learned they were not bad people after all. They’re very intelligent and they were real polite, real respectful.”

The field trip inspired Western student Alex Hurtado to pursue a college education. He’s interested in studying criminal justice.

“I want to see myself in college,” Alex, 17, said. “I want to get my high school diploma and get myself together.”

At a recent visit to Western, Cecconi talked to Alex about making good choices.

Alex, a teen with a charismatic smile, shaved head and diamond stud in his right ear, shared his story about what brought him to Western more than a year ago.

He recalled skipping school to meet a group of friends. As he waited on a street, a police cruiser stopped and an officer questioned him about not being in school. The officer discovered two revolvers in his pockets, a .25-caliber and a .38-caliber. They also found a baggie of marijuana.

“I’m through,” Alex said he recalled thinking. He was 15 then, and spent four months in a juvenile detention center.

“There were fights,” Alex recalled. “They [fellow inmates] messed me up a couple of times.”

He’s been attending Western since his release. Alex said he values his time with Cecconi and the other USC mentors.

“It makes you think someone really cares,” Alex said.

For Mariela, her time with Cecconi is also an opportunity to bond with a female close to her age. She said she has difficulty relating to her classmates and welcomes Cecconi’s visits.

“I like to hang around people who are older and more mature,” she said. “I don’t want to make the same mistakes.”

She said Cecconi seems to understand her.

“For us, we live in an environment where there is violence every day,” said Mariela, who wants to become an X-ray technician. “We’re used to drive-bys. I’ve stood on my porch and watched my neighbor get shot in a drive-by. You try to be in this environment every day and see if you don’t get into trouble.”

Cecconi said her volunteer work at Western has been a gift. Graduating in May, she has applied for a job at Teach For America. The organization places recent college graduates for two years in public schools located in low-income areas throughout the nation.

“The biggest challenge is wondering if you are really reaching them,” Cecconi said of Western students. “Sometimes you’re working with a student and you think they’re really ready to shape up. Then you find out they were sent back to juvenile hall. It’s hard not to blame yourself.”