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American Magazine: August 2014

ART BY TREVOR BLAKE,

ART BY TREVOR BLAKE, DENNIS FLEMING, AND KERRY O’LEARY WASHINGTON COLLEGE OF LAW ALUMNI WHITNEY LOUCHHEIM AND PENELOPE SPAIN HELP INCARCERATED D.C. YOUTH REWRITE THEIR FUTURES DEALERS, DOPERS, DROPOUTS, DELINQUENTS. They wear the labels given them by teachers, peers, family, and society, which has turned its back on them—or never had much hope for them to begin with. Trouble finds them, or they find trouble, and they’re plucked off the streets to spend six months, maybe 12 or 18, in the District’s optimistically named New Beginnings, a $46 million juvenile detention center tucked away in Laurel, Maryland. But to Whitney Louchheim, WCL/JD ’05, and Penelope Spain, WCL/JD ’05, these thieves and thugs, corner boys and bangers, are more than the sum of their rap sheets. These young men, nearly all of them D.C. born and raised, are children deprived of a childhood, troubled souls in need of an advocate, a confidante, a mentor, a North Star. SPAIN AND LOUCHHEIM WEAR LABELS OF THEIR OWN: do-gooders, bleeding hearts, idealists. But just like the juvenile offenders with whom they work at Mentoring Today, the nonprofit they founded in 2005, they aren’t so easily categorized. “One of the kids once said, ‘Y’all are like goldfish that bite,’” laughs Louchheim, 35. “They look friendly enough, but don’t mess with them.” In truth, the pair are idealists. Like generations of American University students before them and waves still to come, Spain and Louchheim came to Washington in fall 2002 “to make a difference.” “We just needed to define it,” recalls Spain, 38. A native of Napa, California—a community of vineyard owners and the migrant workers who labor in their fields—Spain’s family constantly teetered on the poverty line. She met Louchheim, who came from a liberal, human rights–focused family in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, during their first day of orientation at the Washington College of Law (WCL). The women chatted for hours after their serendipitous meeting, swapping stories about their childhoods, their spirituality, and their desire to use their law degrees for good— whatever that might look like. A budding interest in juvenile justice solidified their bond. “The summer after my first year of law school, I shadowed a public defender at Oak Hill Youth Center and was blown away by the conditions,” says Spain of the violent, crumbling facility, which preceded New Beginnings. “It broke my heart that we were treating kids like this in America.” Struck by the shortcomings of the juvenile justice system—the rats and roaches that roamed Oak Hill, the mountains of case files that littered social workers’ desks, the racial disparity among D.C.’s juvenile offenders—she knew she’d found her calling. In fall 2003, Spain and Louchheim, who clerked for a magistrate judge in D.C. Superior Court’s child abuse and neglect division, founded Students United, pairing WCL student mentors with 16- to 21-yearold inmates at Oak Hill. The goal: to help the young men successfully reintegrate into their neighborhoods and empower them to become productive members of society. Today, Mentoring Today draws its corps of volunteers exclusively from Students United. (Over the last nine years, Mentoring Today has matched 58 mentors with 64 mentees.) “I remember we were walking the halls of Oak Hill one day [as law students], watching the mentors and mentees work together, and I said to Whitney, ‘Wouldn’t it be amazing if this was our job?’” says Spain. The goldfish finally had something to sink their teeth in. ACCORDING TO A 2010 REPORT by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 67 percent of incarcerated youth (roughly 70,000 kids nationwide) reported having witnessed someone severely injured or killed. Twenty-two percent had attempted suicide, and 30 percent (five times the rate for all kids) had dabbled with crack or cocaine. Locally, 70 percent of the approximately 1,000 juveniles arrested annually in the District grew up east of the Anacostia River in Wards 5, 7, and 8—communities marred by poverty, high unemployment, and dismal high school graduation rates. Fifty to 80 percent of the young men who churn through New Beginnings, which opened in 2009, have also cycled in and out of Washington’s child abuse and neglect system. Some are homeless; many wrestle with mental health issues, drug problems, or post traumatic stress disorder. Nearly all come from fatherless homes. Given the complexity of the juveniles’ issues, the first rule Spain and Louchheim share with Mentoring Today volunteers is a surprisingly simple one: show up. “ONE OF THE KIDS ONCE SAID, ‘Y , ALL ARE LIKE GOLDFISH THAT BITE.’THEY LOOK FRIENDLY ENOUGH, BUT DON’T MESS WITH THEM.” - WHITNEY LOUCHHEIM FOLLOW US @AU_AMERICANMAG 19