Beyond Gainesville State School’s chain-link fence, beyond its modest red brick buildings, 270 teenage felons from across Texas are held in juvenile detention.
From the outside, Gainesville is just like the hundreds of other detention centres across the United States that hold around 55,000 youths from various backgrounds in the hopes of helping them reform to lead a happy, fulfilling life outside of a jail cell.
What sets the school apart, however, is its commitment to quality programs that foster a sense of community outside of the gang life many of the teens have become accustomed to.
Most notable of these programs is their football program. Back in 2008, the Gainesville State Tornadoes took the field against Grapevine Faith Christian School, and were shocked to discover students from the other school had formed a spirit line to welcome them onto the field. Some players were so taken aback at the cheers – the first cries of encouragement they may have ever experienced in their lives – that they ran around the line apprehensively. Coach Williams sent them back around to experience it properly.
“I never in my life thought I’d hear people cheering for us to hit their kids,” Quarterback Isaiah told ESPN. “I wouldn’t expect another parent to tell somebody to hit their kids. But they wanted us to!”
The team lost – in fact, they rarely ever win a game – but it didn’t matter. At the end, they celebrated by giving the coach a Gatorade shower as if they’d just won the Superbowl. It was a moment of acknowledgement, of respect, the likes of which the troubled teens had never imagined before. It filled them with the sense of purpose they needed to know the world was willing to accept them as more than former criminals, provided they make the effort to move past their prior transgressions.
“When we play football we don’t care about gangs,” newcomer Elliott explained to the Dallas Observer. “We focus on the team and the effort.”
It was the kind of mindset that Omid Ghaffari-Tabrizi, Chris Cash, and Kort Kirby knew was crucial to putting the youths on the right track. That knowledge came from their experience as moderators of a Reddit community that serves as an outlet for ex-convicts, and the experiences the channel’s 3000+ users have shared.
Ghaffari-Tabrizi, a lawyer who specialises in expeal (clearing criminal records), recognises that if the teens are to change, it needs to occur before they are released. “If we can’t catch these kids before that, they will be a statistic,” he warns. Otherwise, they may become part of the 76.6% of national prisoners who return to jail within five years of release.
That’s why, with the full support of the school, they’ve launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise money to support the school’s athletic programs. Having this week reached the $3500 goal necessary to supply the football team with new equipment and gear, further donations will be distributed to other teams.
Kirby and Ghaffari-Tabrizi will deliver the cheque in August, and have invited community members to join them in a sign of solidarity for the students. “The biggest thing I hope for is that the kids are really adopted by the community,” Ghaffari-Tabrizi says. “When people see a little love and support they can do incredible things.”
Original article: Dallas Observer.
To donate to the GoFundMe campaign, click here.