A person who can see what others cannot see; who can feel what most do not feel. Often, such gifted persons do not think of themselves as volunteers, but as citizens – citizens in the fullest sense: partners in civilization. –Unknown

HELPING CHILDREN REACH THEIR FULL POTENTIAL: One of the opportunities I’ve been blessed with for community service is an appointment from Florida Governor Rick Scott to chair an advisory board that works with the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice.  It’s called the State Advisory Group (SAG). Our vision is children and families throughout Florida who are empowered with the necessary resources to be safe, secure, and strong. Our mission is simple but incredibly important – to help children and families reach their full potential.

We just finished 2 days of meetings in Daytona as part of our quarterly get together and have some incredible stats to report:  Over the last 2 years crime has dropped dramatically in Florida.  Delinquency arrests are down 23%. School based arrests down 28% and first time misdemeanor arrests are down 29%.  The results of prevention and diversion programs are evident and we discussed proposed legislation that will further improve the safety and security of our children and families.

THE MOST IMPORTANT PART WASN’T EVEN ON THE SCHEDULE: The most impactful part of the 2 days of meetings and presentations was an unscheduled trip to the Daytona detention facility.  It’s a facility that houses male and female juvenile offenders for up to 21 days for all kinds of offenses.  A couple of my fellow SAG members invited me to visit – not for a typical tour – but to talk with the children, listen to their story, and learn what we could do to improve the juvenile justice system throughout the state.

I have to admit I was reluctant to go at first. It had been a long day and I was sapped of energy and not feeling that well.  It would have been nice to take a nap before dinner or walk on the beach.  Looking back I’m glad I made the decision to visit the children instead. I left there more energized and excited about our mission than ever before.

A CHAT DURING DINNER: The children came for dinner and our little band got to introduce ourselves and the SAG and what we were doing. We then asked for the opportunity to visit with them.  What I learned crystalized for me why the State Advisory Group is important and vital to the children and families of our state.

As I sat down with the children I listened to their stories. Some were in for drug offenses, fighting, and stealing. Some were very serious and others were minor offenses. I can remember a 12 year old boy that was reticent to talk at first but then seemed to open up a little. He never told me what he did to be there but he said, “I did something bad.”  And, “I need to change my attitude and my behavior.”  I asked him what he would do when he left the facility and he replied that he wanted to focus on grades and play sports.  I shared with him that his past didn’t have to determine his future – that he could do anything he put his mind to if he believed it possible and was willing to put forth the effort to make it so.  It was important to stress to him not to beat himself up over what he did but to focus forward and keep going.

I shared with a duo of girls, one – 14 and the other 17th who are due to get out in a few days. I asked them what they wanted to be when they grew up. One shared that she wanted to be a lawyer and the other wanted to play for the WNBA. I shared with them my story of dreaming big and going for it.

There was one boy in particular that mentioned he was moving to Orlando and going to attend Valencia college when this was all over. He seemed genuinely remorseful for what he did to land himself in the detention center. He’s starting his senior year at high school and I had the thought, “you don’t belong here.”  In fact none of the children belonged there. But circumstances – choices brought them to that place.  I thought about what I could do. I told him that I would give my business card to the officer and that when he got out she would give it to him. I asked him to call me so we can go see an Orlando Magic game together. I think I just found a new mentee.

SAILING FOR THE FUTURE: My fellow SAG member Michael knew of the dentention center culture well. He was in one of these detention centers and was able to connect with these children on a level that I’ve never seen before.  His experience was recent, only 4 years ago. His goal is that young children know their value, believe in what’s possible, and make choices that will propel them towards success. He started his own non-profit (Sailing For the Future) where he takes juveniles who are struggling, at-risk, even some who are in these detention centers and provides incredible opportunities that expand their world. He changes their paradigm by volunteering his time, sometimes in excess of 40 hours a week. He is constantly mentoring, counseling, empowering young people to grow beyond their comfort zone and in so doing grow in maturity and personal development.  Michael and a few of his friends who volunteer with him take these young children sailing. He says at first there is no way they think they can sail – but then they do it – and then they begin to think “what else can I accomplish?” Michael is opening up the minds of dozens of children to a vast world of possibilities. He is standing in the gap between despair and hope.

 A BATTLE TESTED MOM RECEIVES HOPE: As we left the detention center we met a young mother who was picking up her son. It was the day he was getting out.  We could see how worn she was – how tired – and a little scared.  Her son had done something bad but she loved him. And what he did didn’t diminish our love for him either and we believe is possible for his future.  As his mom spoke tears welled up in her eyes. “I’m trying so hard,” she said. My colleague Michael took her aside and encouraged her. He had the privilege of speaking at length with her son. Michael didn’t see the crime this young man committed. He saw a young boy that didn’t belong in detention and he told him so. Michael told this young boy, who was about to be released, that he was destined for a life of freedom and success. The question now remains will we do the same thing Michael did? It’s easy – all you need to do is give a little time and reach out.

WHAT CAN WE DO? There are hundreds of thousands of children who have the seeds of greatness living on the inside of them.  They’ve been caught in tough situations. They’ve made decisions that endanger their future. In some instances they have committed crimes that have endangered the lives of others.  What can we do to ensure more children are empowered to make better choices?  Some of these children bow to peer pressure, steal or get in trouble because they have no stability at home – no one that cares – no one that is willing to sew seeds of empowerment into their lives.

We must support justice – but what if we also promoted compassion and mercy at the same time? We can fund programs designed to help these young juveniles. We can implement initiatives to intervene in tough situations or provide after school activities that engage them – but if we rely on these things alone we will have missed an important opportunity to be the hands and feet of love in a world that so desperately needs an army of compassion.

Each of us know children who are at-risk – in need – struggling in school or with behavior.  Reach out a hand and help.  They need your time, your service.  Yes they need help with homework – but they also just need a friend to talk to – someone who will just be there to listen and accept them for who they are but encourage them to be what they could yet be.