About Fresh Lifelines for Youth
Fresh Lifelines for Youth (FLY) understands that young people who are in trouble with the law might be less likely to re-offend if they understand the law and the consequences of their crimes. Each year more than 1,000 at-risk kids take part in a 12-week law course; 70 who want to transform their lives can enter leadership training, giving them the skills and support they need to realize their true potential. A two-year mentor program helps another 100 kids struggling with drug or alcohol use, and a middle school platform reaches out to 1,000 at-risk kids before they get into trouble. FLY costs less than 10% of the cost of incarceration, and more than 80% of all youth in FLY’s programs share that FLY inspired them to change their lives.  flyprogram.org

About Christa Gannon
As a law student, Christa Gannon’s promising path to being a trial lawyer took an unexpected detour after she volunteered at a maximum-security juvenile facility. The kids, locked up and troubled, spoke to her and, time and again, they repeated the same story: their lives would have followed different trajectories if only they’d had more support.

Gannon wasn’t able to tune out their quiet pleas for help. In 1996, while still a Stanford Law School student, she created a program in which she matched her fellow law students with kids in Santa Clara County’s Juvenile Hall. And, again, she listened to the youth. In fact, she asked them—kids whom most people wrote off—to help her design a program that would have kept them away from their lives of crime. Their recommendations: provide training and information that would help kids in trouble with the law learn how to follow the law; be paired with role models; and allow troubled youth the chance to be of service to the community. And these continue to be the central tenets of Fresh Lifelines for Youth (FLY) today.

Things got off to a promising start when, shortly after graduation, Gannon received a George Soros Foundation two-year fellowship to test out the ideas she and the kids in the juvenile justice system had put together. Her travels as part of the fellowship further informed her understanding of youth development, curriculum development, and crime prevention. In 2000, she formally incorporated FLY, and that first year, FLY had one staff member, five volunteers, and 25 clients. Today, FLY annually works with nearly 1,200 juvenile-justice-involved and/or at-risk-of-systems-entry high school youth (aged 14-18), and more than 1,000 at-risk middle school students (aged 12–18) every year. Gannon leads a staff of 47, supplemented by 250 volunteers, and a budget of just over $4.5 million.

The numbers tell a story of growth, but the words of the young people whose lives have been changed forever by Gannon and FLY’s program tell the real story. Take 21-year-old Ronald, who became a part of the FLY family when he was 12. He was already in trouble with the law, and reluctantly agreed to enroll in FLY’s Law Program because it was the better alternative to spending 60 days incarcerated. Despite more than a few missteps during his teen years, he says FLY was always there for him, “They never give up. They actually care.” In Ronald’s estimation, that commitment to the youth is key to FLY’s success. “FLY really changed my life,” Ronald says. “I went from being a knuckleheaded teenager into a mature young adult who sees himself as a family man. There’s a lot more to life than running the streets.”

The caring and commitment to the youth at FLY begins during a 12-week Law Program legal education course, which is the door of entry to FLY, and the first “must-do” those young people told Gannon they wanted when she first began thinking about FLY. This crime-prevention program is recommended or mandated by local judges and probation officers in California’s Santa Clara and San Mateo counties for youth who are on probation, attending alternative schools for teens with troubled pasts, or behind bars. A group of 40 highly trained volunteers (largely law students from local universities) use FLY’s nationally recognized law curriculum and their 30+ hours of intensive training to teach the weekly course at facilities and schools across the two counties. The class includes role-play and debates, which are effective in engaging this difficult-to-engage population. The young folks are given the tools for anger management, empathy, problem-solving, and resisting negative peer pressure. To mark the end of the program, they take part in a mock trial at a local college. For most of these young people, it’s their first time on a college campus—and it opens up a whole new world of possibility.

What the youth learn in this introductory course can change lives. Ronald recalls the moment it sunk in for him: when he learned that by simply being with his friends who were breaking the law, he could be arrested. Ronald recalls, “At first, most people were blowing it off, but then everyone slowly started becoming more interested. It really helped change behavior.”

Hersha Lodhia-Miller taught the Law Program course in 2013 for the first time. Working with three other FLY volunteers she delivered the specialized curriculum over a 12-week period. “It’s been rewarding to see such a simple transformation due to my presence. I’m going to be doing this for a long time.”

For the young people who want or need more after they complete the Law Program, FLY offers two distinct paths. Each year, about 70 youth are selected to take part in the two-year Leadership Training Program. Another 150, many of whom are struggling with substance abuse, can take part in the Mentor Program. A single volunteer is matched with a struggling young person, providing the important mentorship. Both programs address the second item requested by the youth who helped change the course of Gannon’s life. Leadership Training kicks off with a three-day wilderness retreat, and youth meet monthly in small groups to engage in pro-social sober group activities that provide opportunities to learn to have fun without drugs/alcohol/violence. The program culminates in June with a completion ceremony. Youth in the Mentor Program and their mentors have the option of participating in the program’s pro-social activities. As one FLY Peer Leader said, “It was only by doing community service that I realized there really is a good person inside.”

Central to the Leadership Training Program is that third item the youth told Gannon they wanted: an opportunity to be of service. FLY’s Leadership youth plan service-learning projects where they learn how to identify, build on, and redirect their strengths. Collectively, they provided more than 5,000 hours of service to FLY and the local community last year. They reached approximately 1,500 people through opportunities as varied as reading to young kids, providing companionship to seniors, restoring homes, feeding the homeless, or sharing their cautionary tales with middle school students. The service is a powerful reminder to the youth that there is life beyond the streets.

Holly Knapp was introduced to FLY through the annual breakfast fundraiser. “The impact for me was so great. I walked out and said, ‘What can I do?’ As a tax payer, we should all be interested in this program.” That’s because a year in FLY’s most intensive program (the Leadership Training Program) costs less than 1/10th the cost of incarceration, or $13,000 a year, with a 75% of the youth not being found delinquent of a new crime during the program year. Compare that to a yearlong stay in juvenile hall, which costs tax payers well upward of $190,000; and despite all that expense, studies show that 50%-80% of the offenders, after being released, wind up becoming re-incarcerated (recidivism).

For the past several years, Knapp has been a mentor. When she and her mentee first met, her mentee was in trouble with the law, not in school, and pregnant. For two years, she and her mentee met weekly, mostly over the course of comfortable, non-threatening dinners. With her guidance, Knapp’s mentee evolved from a scared, scarred, hard teen into a responsible young woman who is taking good care of her son, getting her GED, and dreams of becoming a nurse. A true bond developed—the mentee regularly texts and contacts Knapp, whom she calls her “second mom,” just to say hi. Knapp was in the delivery room when the baby was born. The official mentor relationship is now over, but Knapp knows she will be in her mentee’s life for a long time to come.

“You can always call FLY any time of day or night—collect if need be. They’re always there for you, no matter how many times you’ve screwed up.”, remarks Knapp. That firm belief in every teen in the program starts with Gannon but is embraced by all the volunteers and staff, and it has a tremendous impact on the kids. “You witness these kids’ transformation from thinking they’ll be dead in a few years, to believing that maybe there’s hope for them.” Knapp continues.

Several additional initiatives enhance the remarkable achievements of the younger teens in the three core programs. Through its Middle School Law Program, which is an adaptation of its Law Program curriculum, FLY annually reaches more than 1,000 7th and 8th graders in at-risk neighborhoods in an attempt to reach out to kids before they start really getting into trouble. Like their high school counterparts, these young people can participate in a college campus tour, and 30 youth at greatest risk of dropping out of school and into crime are paired with case managers through the Goal Oriented Leadership Development (GOLD) program.

The Aftercare Program annually provides 30 in-custody youth serving 6-12 months sentences with 6-10 weeks of legal education classes. Following their release, they receive up to six months of FLY case management to help them reintegrate into their community. The case managers also act in the capacity of a mentor, helping the youth create new, successful lives for themselves during their probationary period.

Through the Record Sealing program, FLY partners with corporate law firm volunteers to file the necessary paperwork for a fully rehabilitated teen to have his or her criminal record sealed/expunged when he or she turns 18—wiping the slate clean for them so that they can more easily find work, homes, or apply for college financial aid.

To further engage its students, FLY offers Project Citizen, made up of workshops and a course in political action in which probation youth research, analyze, and propose adaptations to juvenile justice policies and procedures. The young people have embraced their new activist roles and have succeeded in pressing for significant reforms in the juvenile justice sector in Santa Clara County.

The results speak for themselves. Each individual program, whether its focus is keeping youth from sustaining an offense or developing skills to resist negative peer pressure, has its own statistics of success. Across the board, year after year, 80% of FLY’s more-than-10,000 (to date) participants have reported an increased desire to change, an increase in developmental assets, a change in problematic behavior, and have hope for the future. Last year, 91% of Law Program participants said that learning about the law gave them the confidence to resist negative peer pressure. Ninety percent of those in the Leadership Training Program did not sustain a new offense during the program year. Ninety percent of Mentor Program youth report having hope for their futures.

FLY is proud to be a part of collaborative efforts conducted by numerous community, government and public partners that, through combined efforts, have been effective in reducing the incarcerated youth population in both Santa Clara and San Mateo counties. FLY now looks to extend services to help more marginalized youth, taking initial steps in expanding services into neighboring jurisdictions. FLY looks to launch its Law and Leadership program service replication in one new jurisdiction by summer 2015. Before establishing a full program site, FLY will provide legal education to the other jurisdiction’s juvenile facilities youth in order to gain an understanding of each jurisdiction’s uniqueness and perspective on FLY’s approach to crime prevention.

For nearly two decades, Christa Gannon has been at the center of the charge. At 6’2”, Gannon cuts a striking figure. As a college basketball player, she received the Walter Byers Award, given to the nation’s top female scholar-athlete. But it isn’t her physical presence that powers the room; it’s the quiet example of her leadership. Asked to describe her, the words kind, innovative, intelligent, supportive, and emotionally invested come up again and again. It’s a blend of traits that engenders fierce loyalty—from her staff, volunteers, and youth in the program—and encourages everyone involved in FLY to lift their wings and soar.

[August 2013]

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