Posted by: Staff | 12.07.2009

Ain’t About Ping Pong

DEBI ELLMAN

I can’t drive through Providence, Rhode Island, without thinking of Lewis Colette.  I met him my freshman year at Brown at the Boys Training School in Cranston.  He was there for breaking and entering; I was there for ping-pong.  Once a week a van full of “do-gooders” unloaded at the juvenile correctional facility to provide some distraction and possible role modeling for the kids.  Mostly we sat around the grey, concrete recreation room, perfecting our game of hearts and my backhanded slam.   I also made friends with Colette, a freckled face, redheaded seventeen-year-old with a wicked wit and sparkling eyes.  After a few months of volunteering, I invited Colette to visit me on campus.  He was on a weekend pass, a privilege he had earned for good behavior.  Although at the last minute I almost stood him up, opting to travel to Boston for what had promised to be the next Woodstock concert, I hitchhiked back to school in time to meet him at a bus stop and spent the next twelve hours showing him my world. As we sat on the green talking with my friends, I watched Colette captivate the crowd.  He had this way of turning a phrase, laughing like champagne.  I kept thinking Colette could be the guy down the hall, the one I had a crush on. 

            That was the last time I actually spoke with Colette. When I returned to the Training School the next Thursday, I heard he’d run, escaped just two weeks before his formal release date.  The next month he was back at the Cranston Correctional Facility.  When we stepped into the corridor, I saw him turning the corner in handcuffs.

            I thought about Colette last week while I was attending a Boston Center for Community and Justice breakfast.  The theme was youth violence, and the speakers included Superintendent of Police Paul Joyce; Celina Miranda, VP and Manager of Charitable Giving, BNY Mellon; Casey Recupero, Executive Director of Year Up Boston; and Robert Lewis Jr., VP of The Boston Foundation/Street Safe Boston. These “do-gooders” were engaged in real work.  In their moving presentations they shared ways in which their non-profit agencies were reaching out to kids, preparing them for the work place, offering street-level intervention, and organizing internships and fund-raising efforts.  After educating the audience of BCCJ youth leaders and business people about strategies in place to combat youth violence, the program shifted its focus to leaders from BCCJ’s program, “InIt, “ including our very own Danny DeLeon and Matt Robbins, who shared their perspectives on the issues and facilitated round-table discussions among the participants.  While speaking to his group, Matt made the following observation; “With more than one hundred adults at this networking breakfast willing to donate their time, energy and money to seeing the younger generation succeed, I am reassured that when youth get stuck, there are resources of people and organizations ready to help out.”  Offering his personal perspective on issues, Danny offered this advice: “It is important to make kids feel that someone genuinely cares about them and that it is okay for them to make mistakes.”

Although I didn’t sit at Matt or Danny’s table, before I’d left I had heard from Beaver alumnus, David Hoffman ‘99, another participant at the conference, that he had been “blown away by the Beaver students’ insights and leadership skills.”

I was beset by what I’d learned about youth violence that morning: “65 percent of Boston Public School students report witnessing an act of violence in the past year, and 31 percent say they witnessed violence with in their own neighborhood” (Youth Violence Prevention Funder Learning Collaborative, Copyright 2009, State Street Corporation). The presenters raised our awareness about the complexity of the problems, the extent of the needs, and the level of leadership required to create change.  We were encouraged to attend, not just read about, funerals of kids killed in the streets; we were urged to offer meaningful internships, not make-shift jobs, and advised to assess needs before offering support.  One participant warned that youth overwhelmed by the intricacies of the court system may not grab well-meaning offers for job training.  We were reminded that understanding the extent and depth of a problem are essential to solving it. 

        During my round-table discussion, I thought about Lewis Colette, opting for incarceration over freedom, and wondered about the school system that had failed him.  I also thought about Beaver and our progressive approach to education. Our curriculum and the Hiatt Center for Social Justice Education encourage students to exit their comfort zones, examine issues from different perspectives, confront biases, and give voice to their questions and concerns.  Regardless of our socio-economic background, we are a privileged group here, taking advantage of opportunities to collaborate and form close relationships across age, religious and race lines.  I believe that our educational approach offers seeds to a solution, the tools for becoming active, engaged citizens.  Colette would have been well served at a place like Beaver. 

            I left the meeting inspired to do something: to write this article, to express my support for leniency in a case currently being considered by the Supreme Court  (mandatory life-sentencing for youth offenders).  I began to think about Facebook and other social networks as tools to assist hospital trauma units in tracking the whereabouts of their patients, victims of gang violence, so that services initiated at the hospital can continue after victims are back on the streets. 

         Participating in the program raised my antenna and reminded me that there is much to be done.  There are many kids like Colette waiting for something better than a game of ping pong or a day on the green.

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Responses

  1. Thanks for your excellent article. Your response to the BCCJ event was so clearly connected to your personal connection to youth offenders through Colette. Thanks- kit


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