The great(er) community: Juvenile Detention Center & Washington University

| Staff Columnist

Hello! More crowd-pleasing than Michael Phelps’ hard body, back from England with a renewed sense of both patriotism and deep, abiding anti-American fervor, it is I, David Shapiro, your favorite columnist! While my bi-weekly readership will recall that last year’s theme was “Study Abroad,” I’ve decided to switch it up a bit this year. Of course, that’s mainly because I’m not abroad this year.

This year I could have chosen to discuss how ResLife has screwed me over (it hasn’t—I live in one of the top floors of the Dorchester), how there aren’t enough places to recycle on campus (the administration has definitely been working on it), or how much I’ve missed Bear’s Den cuisine (the jury is still out on that one). I feel, however, that those topics have been covered beyond the point of ultimate tedium.

This column is going to become part public service, part community bulletin. I’d like to share positive stories about the Washington University community and the St. Louis community with you all. I’d also like to open your eyes to opportunities to do some real good in the greater St. Louis area. I am going to try to sell you on the some of the good you could be doing if you turned off Halo 3, hopped on a bus and discovered St. Louis on your own terms.

If you know me, you’re probably aware of my involvement with the St. Louis City Juvenile Detention Center (JDC) program. I was first introduced to the group by Meredith Sigler, class of ’08, at a community service fair on the Swamp. I was intrigued by the prospect of mentoring juvenile offenders. I was already excited about working with at-risk youth through one of the Campus Y tutoring programs, so I decided to volunteer with the JDC, as well. Quickly, the program became the best part of my week.

The way the program works is that almost every night of the week and on Saturday afternoons, a small group of Wash. U. students pile into a car or two and take a 10-minute drive to the JDC. While there, we take on a mentorship role of sorts, playing games with the kids and helping them with assignments. These kids need positive role models more than anyone else in America.

I like to say that they aren’t simply at-risk; they are beyond that point. They have already “risked.” Of course, most of them aren’t bad kids. They’ve made stupid choices because they have few people to tell them what the best choice is. They aren’t aware of the opportunities out there for them. As Washington University students, we’re in the perfect position to convey important messages to the youths in detention.

Don’t let your nerves prevent you from joining this fabulous program. Admittedly, I was tentative at first about joining.  I promise you, however, that there is absolutely nothing to be afraid of. The kids look forward to the program and they truly value the time we spend there.

If you’re interested, there are also opportunities to get involved with the Juvenile Detention Center outside of the presently-established Washington University program. The computer lab at the JDC is one area where work can be done. We could use volunteers to update the equipment and teach kids the fundamentals of more basic programs, such as Microsoft Word, as well as more exciting applications, such as Fruity Loops, and other music production software. If you’re good at chess, you can teach chess to and play games with the kids. The JDC even has a small garden in the yard which volunteers can help to expand and use as a teaching tool for youth mentoring sessions. You are also welcome to take a stab at grant writing, which consists of getting to know more about the Center and using that knowledge to ask foundations for capital support. Of course all of these activities would look great on your resumé. Most importantly, though, is that they are fun, rewarding, unique opportunities.

If you have a positive story or local community outreach program to share with your Washington University colleagues, please e-mail me at the address below.

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