Leaving Behind a Life of Crime for a Brighter Future

Lawrence Family Development provides social emotional development programs to give young people the chance to finish high school, find a career, and succeed in life.

After spending three years in jail for auto theft, Tommy* knew he needed to find a job. He also knew he couldn’t do the one thing he loved — work with cars. But Tommy never completed high school and finding work was difficult.

At 22 years old, Tommy made a decision that changed his life forever. He walked away from crime and joined YouthBuild through Lawrence Family Development (LFD). The program, designed for high-risk young people, focuses on completing a high school education, building social and emotional skills, and learning how to become financially self-sufficient.

From the start, Tommy was unlike the other students. They showed up wearing baggy jeans and sneakers, while most days Tommy showed up wearing a suit. One day, Paul Heithaus, Director of Program Development at LFD, asked Tommy why he wore a suit. Tommy’s response surprised him. He told Paul he wore a suit because, if he wanted to be successful, he had to look and feel successful.

Social Emotional Development programs target life skills

YouthBuild is just one of four social emotional development programs at LFD, and Paul says they are all united by one thing: “For 98% of our young people, they have struggled in school, work, or the community because they don’t have a lot of the social and emotional skills that others take for granted.”

All of the programs at LFD focus on life skills. The staff and case workers zero in on issues like time management, how to dress, how to speak with a co-worker, supervisor or client, how to manage conflict resolution, and how to receive constructive criticism and respond to it appropriately.

“This is tied into everything we do — education, workforce development, and peer and staff relationship development. We teach them social and emotional skills to handle certain situations in the moment.” Paul explains, “We’ll ask them, ‘If your teacher or supervisor says something to you that you don’t like, rather than cursing at them and storming out of the room, what would be a better way to respond?’”

From Car thief to case manager

As for Tommy, he completed YouthBuild’s 10-month program. He then completed a life skills development program through a local service provider, which was designed for the hardest-to-reach young people. The program focused on mental health and social skills so students could then use their experiences in a positive way to become a peer mentor and help others succeed, too.

After the program, the service provider offered Tommy an official internship as a peer mentor. Later, they hired him as a full-time employee and now, more than three years later, Tommy is a case manager. And in the true spirit of paying it forward, Tommy goes back to LFD twice a week to do peer mentoring with young people trying to move away from gang violence and crime.

what does Success look like?

Tommy exemplifies 100% success, but success looks different for many of the young people at LFD. Paul understands that not everyone will achieve the same kind of success as Tommy. “We strive for that level of success, but it doesn’t always look like what others think it should look like. Success is hard to measure quantitatively.”

Sometimes success might be enrolling in secondary education or vocational programs. For others, it can simply be learning self-awareness. “But sometimes, students struggle and the streets pull them back in,” says Paul. “Even then, when they keep returning to us, we still consider that a great success.”

*Name changed


Read more about social and emotional skills:

“FUN”damental of Social and Emotional Skill Building

4 Fun Summer Activities to Build Social Emotional Skills