The midnight massacre carried out by a young man in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, raised painful questions for me and so many others about how it could have been prevented, including how can we, as citizens, still tolerate this country’s outrageously easy access to guns and explosives that makes such horrific events possible. But this senseless shooting also made me think about the many troubled youth living in communities where violence is such a part of their lives either as victims or as perpetrators. How do we reach these young people before they get into trouble or go down the wrong road? What opportunities do they need to feel hopeful that their lives can change for the better?

A few weeks ago, I searched for some answers by spending time with people who are deeply committed to turning young lives around. The day began in a cavernous room filled with carpentry equipment and work stations, with saw dust on the floor and a large wooden boat hanging by chains from the rafters. In one corner, a teacher was working with a young man, showing him how to build a wooden chair.  The workshop one of the buildings that make up the Living Classrooms Foundation in Baltimore, Maryland, was also filled with visitors from St. Lucia, Grenada, Antigua and Barbuda, Jordan, Mozambique, South Africa, and Tanzania.

The international visitors that day. members of IYF’s global partner network, all run programs in their countries that work with highly vulnerable youth from tough, underserved and often violent communities. Many of these young people are ex-gang members, unemployed school drop-outs, or have recently been in jail. That is the same profile of youth that Living Classrooms is committed to supporting.

Over ten months, trainees in the Baltimore program, called Fresh Start, undergo a rigorous carpentry training course designed to instill valuable life and employability skills. Working on special projects, like rebuilding park benches, produces a much-needed paycheck. Through its comprehensive approach, Fresh Start provides youth with psychological, health and other support services, as well as critically important mentoring and one-on-one coaching. At the end, graduates are placed in an internship and are on their way to enter the job market.

I admit I wasn’t sure if this Baltimore-based program would be interesting or even relevant to these youth-serving organizations from around the globe. How wrong I was. Questions about the program just flew around the room. How do kids who have been in jail get jobs? How can we work more effectively with families to support youth in their communities? What does it take to build such positive relationships with local government agencies?

After a lively exchange, the international group gathered to discuss what they’d learned. “This has given us plenty of food for thought,” said one. “We need to start doing more public advocacy on these issues in our country,” said another. A man from Tanzania urged his colleagues: “We have to begin creating a more integrated and extended program like this one that meets more of the needs of our youth.” A Caribbean partner working with incarcerated youth noted: “In Baltimore they begin working with youth months before they leave jail so they know what’s expected. That’s a great idea.”

Everyone was excited about Living Classrooms’ idea of creating a “brand” that companies in the community can recognize and trust, which makes it easier to place program graduates in jobs. To develop that brand, Fresh Start works relentlessly with youth participants to develop the three A's: Attitude, Attendance, and Appearance. They make each student accountable for upholding those values on a daily basis.

Everyone agreed that this is very difficult and frustrating work, and there are no easy solutions. Yet from experience, they know that when young people who have given up on life get a second chance, the result can be transformational—for that them, their families, and for their community.

Some of the young men in the Baltimore program talked to us about the almost daily gun-related violence in their neighborhoods, and the illicit drug trade that has led them and so many of their peers down the wrong path. “I wanted to get new skills, and this place prepares us for the real world,” said one young man who recently left jail. “In the long run, I’ll get a job, thanks to what I’ve learned here.”

What really struck me that day was not how different our experiences are working with young people around the world—but how similar.  While circumstances, cultures and opportunities vary widely, we are bound together by our passionate belief that every young person can lead an independent and productive life and contribute to his or her community. To make that vision a reality, we must keep sharing our best ideas, focus on what works, and most importantly, learn from each other.

[photo taken by: Jason Putsche]