Photos & Story by Krissi Khokhobashvili, CDCR Public Information Officer
More than 100 at-risk youth learned about the power of choice at the fifth annual “My Future Starts with Me” children’s conference in Woodland.
The annual summit is presented by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and Friends-CARE, a non-profit organization providing support to families of incarcerated people. The event draws together CDCR staff, law enforcement and legal experts to teach with youth how the choices they make today have consequences which last far into the future.
“Everyone wants the best for you that’s why we took the time out today,” said Jay Virbel, Associate Director of CDCR’s Female Offenders Programs and Services/Special Housing Mission (FOPS/SH). “And I know that you want the best for yourselves, also.”
Attendees participated in four workshops about the power of choice, including asking local judges about laws and consequences, and a “What If” workshop. In this workshop law enforcement guided youth through what could happen in scenarios where they might have to make a split-second choice.
“It’s making me re-think things because sometimes I just do things without thinking,” said Samira, a teenage attendee.
She said she learned how something as simple as getting a ride from the wrong person could have huge impacts on her life.
“I don’t want to be in a situation where I can’t get myself out of it,” she said.
One of the most powerful parts of the day was a live feed from Folsom State Prison (FSP) and Folsom Women’s Facility (FWF), in which inmates discussed consequences with the youth.
“Time is not something you want to do being in trouble – time is something you want to do at free will,” a female inmate told the group. “So make your choices a little bit wiser, be quick to think and slow to react when it comes to somebody making you angry.”
When the youth asked how many of the inmates were incarcerated due to choices made with drugs or gangs, nearly all the inmates raised their hands. One woman pointed out, no matter how much a gang may feel like a “family,” when a member goes to prison, it’s the end of support from the outside.
“Gangs are like leeches,” she said. “They jump on you and suck all the life out of you, and now they’re going to find somebody else.”
Detective Brandon Luke, who supervises the gang investigation unit for the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, gave a gang awareness presentation in which he outlined the consequences of gang affiliation.
He ran a powerful slideshow which include crime scene photos and interviews with families of youth killed in gang violence. Luke explained a gang enhancement can add years to a prison sentence.
“Get away from gangs,” he said. “Stop being a follower, be a leader.”
New this year was a seminar about Internet safety presented by Detective James Williams of the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department. Williams is also part of the Sacramento Crimes Against Children Internet Task Force. He said every day he sees children affected by how they chose to spend their time online.
Once something is posted on the Internet, he said, it’s extremely difficult, and usually impossible, to make it go away. Posting inappropriate pictures, cyber-bullying and visiting adult sites are just some of the ways youth can find themselves in trouble online.
“You don’t want to get into a situation where you’ve made a comment that you wouldn’t have said to somebody when you’re standing in front of them, talking to them face-to-face,” he said. “Because those comments are going to be out there, they’re going to affect people forever. They’re always going to be there.”
Dorothy Montgomery, Executive Director of Friends-CARE, thanked the CDCR, law enforcement and community volunteers who spent their Saturday helping youth.
FOPS/SH Associate Warden Cherylann Mendonca has been involved with the conference since its inception five years ago, and was honored earlier this year for her service. Friends-CARE presented Mendonca with a plaque and their sincere appreciation for her “continued dedication and support of the at-risk kids and the children left behind.”
“All these people that are here,” Montgomery said, “the police chiefs, the probation chiefs, the community people – they are here because they want to try to change these kids’ lives.”