By Julie Muhlstein Herald Columnist
At the heart of it is a question. It’s penned on a whiteboard in a classroom at Denney Juvenile Justice Center.
“If … there is or was something someone could say or do to change your path, what would it be?”
There are answers, too, in the form of questions on posters made by kids confined at Denney. Some of those posters say:
“What if … I put people before drugs?”
“What if … I had a home to stay in for my whole childhood?”
“What if … I understood how my parents felt when I didn’t care?” That poster has a stick-figure parent saying “We’re worried about you” and a cartoon kid’s reply of “I hate you guys.”
Into that classroom Thursday walked 20 boys in orange detention clothes, a Seattle police detective, and four adults who served years in prison. With criminal records that run a gamut from fraud and armed robbery to second-degree murder, the former inmates came to the Everett juvenile facility to help.
They are part of the If Project, which uses the voices of former prison inmates to try to keep young people from following destructive paths.
“I’m tired of it — arresting kids your age,” said Detective Kim Bogucki, the Seattle policewoman who co-founded the If Project four years ago. As part of the Seattle Police Department’s Community Outreach Unit, Bogucki’s focus is no longer arresting people. “There are police who need to do that,” she told the kids.
With her If Project team of former prisoners, Bogucki’s goal is sharing lessons learned the hard way. The hope is that hearing ex-convicts talk about what put them behind bars will keep kids from ever facing hard time.
“You don’t have to continue on doing what you’re doing. We want to prevent you from moving on to the next level,” Honey Jo Herman told the boys. Some of the kids were being held for criminal offenses, others for truancy or At-Risk Youth program sanctions.
Herman, a Seattle native, told them she was “raised hard,” in poverty and with a heroin-addicted father. Her life of crime began with shoplifting. “When stealing doesn’t scare you anymore, you try something else,” she said. “At 17, I robbed a man at gunpoint. I held him hostage three days. Imagine how scared that man must have been.”
Herman spent six years at the Washington Corrections Center for Women near Purdy, and has been out for a decade. The real change in her life came after a death in her family five years ago. “I was so tired of being a messed-up person,” she said.
She told the kids there’s “good news” for them. “You can do whatever you want to do. This is a blip. You have your whole lives ahead of you,” Herman said.
The If Project began when Bogucki went to Purdy and asked a group of inmates that question: if there was something someone could have said or done that would have changed their path. One inmate spread the word, inspiring hundreds of women there to write essays answering that question.
At Denney on Thursday, the boys watched a video of prison interviews with some of those women. Girls at Denney saw the presentation at an afternoon session Thursday. Bogucki said the If Project is now working with men at the Monroe Correctional Complex to bring more voices to the effort.
David Lujano spent 14 years behind bars on a second-degree murder charge, both at the Monroe prison and at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla. Born in Los Angeles, he said he had moved to Seattle and was 19 when he killed a man in a drunken fight.
In prison, he earned a GED. He has taken college courses and now has a job. Lujano warned the boys of the dangers of “getting used to this life,” and told them “for you, change is not going to be easy.”
“The one main thing I want to leave you guys with, allow yourself to be helped,” he said.
Gina McConnell talked about running away from home at 12. “I started selling dime bags of weed,” she said. “The streets will always take you in. There’s a cost.”
With multiple felonies, she spent a decade in prison. She was still behind bars when she learned about the If Project. Today, she is free, employed and working on a degree.
“Nobody can control you. You’ve got to do the work,” McConnell told the kids.
Denise James was imprisoned eight years for assault and robbery. She said her troubles started after she left college and got involved with a man who used drugs. “All of a sudden, I had no self-worth. I didn’t give a crap about life,” James said. “The hardest part for me was what it did to my family. I have the most amazing mom.”
Amy Perusse, the Everett School District’s Denney Juvenile Justice Center success coordinator, said two grants helped bring the If Project to Everett, $1,000 from the Everett Public Schools Foundation and $1,700 from the Howarth Trust. Perusse said the If Project was at Denney twice last year, and once in 2011.
“We’ll be able to bring them in four times this year,” Perusse said. “They’re starting to form a bit of a bond here.” She said that from presenters she has learned about needs kids have that they haven’t shared with anyone else.
After speaking to the whole classroom, the former inmates sat down with kids in smaller groups. At one table, Herman asked boys about careers. One hoped to be a pilot. Another was interested in the military.
What if what those kids heard Thursday makes a real difference?
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460, firstname.lastname@example.org.