By: Elena Richardson, Grants Program Manager for The Fund for Santa Barbara
From Casa Magazine published March 6th, 2015.
Latinos represent the fastest growing group being incarcerated in America today. In California prisons, Latino men make up the largest ethnic majority at 42 percent. In Santa Barbara County, Latino youth make up 60 percent of our juvenile justice system. In 2014, the Fund for Santa Barbara awarded a grant to Freedom for Youth (F4Y) for their youth-led work to reduce recidivism in the juvenile justice system.
F4Y does their work by connecting youth advocates — many of whom are UCSB students — with boys at the Los Prietos Boys Camp. The Youth Advocates’ goal is to empower the boys with the life skills and reintegration support that they need to stay out of the criminal justice system. In the words of one of the volunteers, Melissa Rios, “F4Y gives the boys tools to cope with the challenges in their lives, become stronger, and develop self-worth so they can get out and stay out.”
F4Y Advocate, Melissa Rios, shares “We want to change the [negative] way in which the boys think about themselves and help them find their own voice. We’re a family. This is a safe space.”.
Located in the Los Padres National Forest, Los Prietos Boys Camp (LPBC) houses roughly 60 boys age 13 – 18, at any given time, often at the recommendation of the Probation Department. All of the boys are required to serve sentences of four to seven months for crimes they have committed.
Freedom 4 Youth was established as a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit in 2011, but its roots go back to 2008 when Co-Founder, Billi Jo Starr volunteered her time at the Los Prietos Boys Camp teaching “Leadership Development, Listening, and Effective Communication” classes twice a week. F4Y now has four primary programs focusing on: leadership development, workforce training, mentorship development, and community reintegration. All of these programs are led by student volunteers. One advocate, Anthonia Ibrahim describes the power of F4Y’s youth-led strategy “We’re not putting ourselves up as an authority figure. This is mutual empowerment.”
Manuel Garcia “Manny” was incarcerated at age 12 for four years. Manny shares that the F4Y Advocates taught him how to take responsibility for his life and gave him a support system when he came out. “Sometimes [the student volunteers] were annoying”, admits Manny, “but really, it just felt good to know that someone actually cared.” From age 13 – 17, the student advocates came out to visit Manny for his birthdays. “I felt love”, says Manny. “We all need to be able to say that I am valuable and there are people who care about me, people who would notice if something happened to me.”
Manuel Garcia “Manny” at Freedom 4 Youth’s Music and Mentors Open Mic Night at UCSB in 2014
Melissa Rios is a student volunteer who attended Manny’s birthdays at the Camp, saying “We don’t see them as ‘bad kids’ and we’re not judging them for their past. If we did then it would be easy for them to fall back into that “bad kid” role.” Stephanie Ruiz, one of the F4Y Advocates said the experience “made me aware of my own privilege”. She wants people to know that these boys are “part of our community, they’ve grown up here, and they’ll come back. We need to focus on treatment, healing, and restorative measures to create a mutual trust with the community.”
For more information, please email Billi Jo Starr at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit Freedom 4 Youth’s website at: freedom4youth.org