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La Jollans playing a role in getting troubled youth on track

Chef Jeff talks to the students at the expo. Photo: Dave Schwab
Chef Jeff talks to the students at the expo. Photo: Dave Schwab

By Dave Schwab

Staff Writer

More than 800 troubled youth from around the city got an opportunity to alter their wayward course at the third annual Passport to Life Career and Education Expo held Aug. 10 at San Diego City College.

The program offering workshops and displays was open to 14- to 24-year-olds on probation or with a probation history. It was spearheaded by Superior Court Judge Carolyn Caietti, a La Jollan, as a proactive way to confront juvenile crime.

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The judge said Passport evolved out of a Probation Department program “to reach out to youth not already in custody.”

“We have eight governmental agencies working together to show juveniles, ‘Hey, you made a mistake, learn from it, move on and be a success,’ ” she said.

She talked about four “red flags” — alcohol and/or drug use, lack of education, gang involvement and troubled family life — which are precursors to young people getting into trouble with the law.

Though the Passports program is new, Caietti said it’s having an impact.

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“They come back to the courtroom and some of them say, ‘This is the best day of their life: They didn’t realize people actually cared about them that are part of the ‘system.’ ”

The exhibitor fair which featured 67 educational and support groups this year, gives the young people an opportunity to connect with mentors, counselors and “a whole slew of resources” available to them, noted Caietti.

Connectivity is all important to many.

“I had one kid who framed his anger management certificate because that was the only time he’d ever earned a certificate,” she said. “It was really moving.”

Mack Jenkins, the county’s chief probation officer, said Passport facilitates behavior change.

“With exposure to the workshops and vendors here, they’ll have immediate access to some resources that will support positive decisions that we’re trying to get them to make that will impact them for the rest of their lives,” he said.

Another La Jolla resident who participated was Scott Silverman, founder of Second Chance, a program that contracts with the Probation Department to offer job training and other programs aiding those who’ve run afoul of the law.

He also said Passport offers an “opportunity for transformational change” by introducing people to support groups.

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“When you work with high-risk people who’ve been institutionalized, to have sustainable change you need to give them support — treatment, mentoring, etc. — to work with,” he said. “Life on the inside (incarceration) is one world, but the skills needed there aren’t transferable. They do their time, get out and need a post-release, seamless continuum of support to avoid recidivism.”

The workshops and exhibitor fair at Passport were the “carrot” to the “stick” of the presentation provided by “Chef Jeff” Henderson, who spent 10 years in prison for manufacturing and selling cocaine and is now a bestselling author and executive chef of Café Bellagio in Las Vegas.

Speaking to a gym full of youthful offenders, Henderson painted a very unpleasant picture of the regimentation and lack of freedom in prison life. He expressed regret at losing 10 years of his life, but noted he was able to “turn his life around” through education and determination. He implored Passport participants to follow suit.