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News Maryland Baltimore Crime Beat

For juvenile detainees, 'Supper Club' brings stable connection

You empty your pockets of change, keys and pens, walk slowly through a metal detector and raise your arms above your head for a top-to-bottom frisking.

A grim-looking security guard unlocks a metal door, then two more, closing each behind you with a "thump" as he leads you further into the detention center. Then a final door swings open.

"Welcome," exclaims an affable young woman, gesturing toward a table laden with food and surrounded by fresh-faced teen-aged boys. "Won't you sit down and join us?"

You've made it to the Supper Club, an oasis of dining, conversation and companionship inside a facility not known for its welcoming mien — the 120-bed Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center on North Gay Street.

An initiative of the mayor's office, the Supper Club brings volunteer mentors from the wider Baltimore community together with the residents of youth detention centers for a family-style dinner once a week.

The one-year-old program is designed around a time-tested principle — that sharing regular meals with caring grown-ups provides young people with a sense of stability and connection. It's an experience that teens inside these walls may be only passingly familiar with.

"A lot of people see dinner as family time, a time to relax and decompress together," says Jeremy Smith, superintendent of the $45 million facility. "Not all these kids have been dealt the best hand. We believe every one of them can succeed, given the right structure and setting, and the Supper Club offers some very positive building blocks."

Each of the young men at the juvenile center is alleged to have committed a delinquent offense, and a court has determined they need to be detained because they pose a risk to public safety or a risk of flight, says Betsy Tolentino, legislative and policy director for the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services.

Citing confidentiality restrictions, the department would not say why the members of the Supper Club had been brought to the center. Most of the youths there have been accused of misdemeanors, a spokesman said.

The boys at the facility, all 18 years old or younger, remain in custody until their court dates. The average stay is between two and three weeks.

A bedrock principle undergirds the Supper Club — many of the boys, who are still very young, have been raised in unstable environments through no fault of their own and deserve an opportunity to learn from their mistakes.

"Having never done this kind of work before, I've been surprised to see how introspective these kids are," says mentor Daniel Atzmon. "They're all polite, capable and … ask a lot of good questions. If they'd been born to upper-middle-class families in safe areas, I think they'd already be on their way to doing incredible things."

For one hour per week over a course of six weeks, the Supper Club gives young men a chance to break bread and interact with adults like Atzmon, 24, an IT professional, and fellow volunteer Jennifer St. Germain, a T. Rowe Price money manager. There are similar programs at two other city detention centers.

"Any time there are caring mentors involved, that's great for the kids," says Eric Solomon, a spokesman for the juvenile services department. "That and food."

At 5:30 p.m., four boys in maroon polo shirts enter, joining three resident advisers, program co-director Chayla Fleming and a couple of guests around a long table.

Each greets the others and finds the place setting that bears his name.

"May I pour the [iced] tea?" one 16-year-old asks of Fleming. The Baltimore Sun does not identify people accused of juvenile crimes.

He and a bespectacled 17-year-old dispense the drinks, always decanting from the left, and the group tucks into plates of fried chicken, fresh pasta salad and rolls.

The first half-hour is dedicated to open conversation. The dialogue unfolds around sports.

Atzmon, a South Florida native, sings the praises of the Miami Heat, who won an NBA playoff game the night before.

The 16-year-old says his favorite sports team is the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"How do you become a Steelers fan growing up in Baltimore?" Atzmon asks.

"It just happens," the boy says. "Can't beat the black and gold."

Resident adviser Keith Johnson objects.

"When I want to watch the Steelers, I know where to find them — on the History Channel," says Johnson, a favorite with the boys, to howls of laughter.

At 6 p.m. on the dot, Fleming turns the page.

She and her co-director, Christine Adkins, organize the second half-hour around discussion questions they write on 3x5 inch cards and pass around.

Many have to do with a theme central to the Supper Club — networking.

"A lot of these kids haven't had much exposure to influences beyond their neighborhoods. We want them to be able to reach out and expand their social circles, because that brings opportunity," says Fleming, who helped develop the Supper Club while serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer.

In response to several card questions, they agree — it's important to introduce yourself to others, remember names, keep contact information and avoid profanity.

"Be respectful and smile, smile, smile. First impressions mean a lot," says one wiry 18-year-old who calls the Supper Club "a great way to embrace my social skills."

Atzmon and St. Germain, like most Supper Club mentors, have agreed to meet with the boys once they're released, share their connections and offer whatever other guidance they can.

"As the saying goes, 'There but for the grace of God go I,'" says St. Germain, who has worked with at-risk youth for 20 years, including in foster care. "You want to be an adult in their life who can view them positively and offer support. I do expect to stay in touch, help them with contacts, help them however I can."

She dispenses tough love as well as companionship and financial pointers. "I had to tell one guy — if you want to interview for a job when you get out, a neck tattoo isn't going to cut it," she says.

Then come the conversation-starters. Organizers write questions that engage, provoke and draw out the differences among participants — and spotlight what they have in common.

"What's the hardest thing you've ever done, and how'd you meet this challenge?" one teen reads from a card.

Passing the high-school assessment test, says one boy (by making time to study hard). Returning to college at 39 (overcoming pride), one counselor adds. Getting a job after being laid off (sending out hundreds of resumes), another says.

"Not being a product of my environment by staying focused on the right things," says one teen, a former baseball player whose smile is as striking as the tats on his forearm.

Ten years from now, one boy wants to be in oceanography, a second hopes to be training in pediatrics and a third dreams of owning a barbershop and working on a book.

"I want to be a good father, to give my son the knowledge he needs to survive in this world," resident adviser Johnson says.

Kids and grownups agree: They love breakfast food, pizza and crab cakes. Everyone has someone to thank — grandmothers, ministers, uncles, priests. And everyone would change something about his or her neighborhood — barring violence, banning drugs, providing more for kids to do and increasing the presence of responsible adults.

"You shouldn't have 35-year-olds just hanging out on the corner. Our children need people to look up to," resident assistant Christa Philson says as the group passes around a plate of cookies, the final touch to a meal supplied by Classic Catering of Owings Mills, a corporate sponsor.

Philson tells them she grew up in Murphy Homes, the public housing complex the city razed in 1999, and eventually became her family's first member to attend college.

"You have to be strong-willed," she says.

Whether these boys are equally focused remains to be seen.

They're off to a good start: Only offenders with good behavioral and academic records are eligible to attend the dinners, and in fact today's group would have been larger had two members not been released earlier in the day.

The Supper Club is still new. Organizers say it's the only program of its kind they know of inside a juvenile justice system, and they haven't had a chance to gather data on its "graduates."

But early evidence suggests it's bridging divides.

Adult participants and the kids alike answer survey questions after each meal. The grownups have averaged a 70 percent increase in their understanding of the youth, the boys a 78 percent increase in their trust in the adults.

Nine of ten volunteers choose to provide the kids with contact information at the end of their sessions.

It all goes toward Smith's goal for the facility. He wants to provide rehabilitation, not just punishment, he says, while the boys are here, and to help them build the skills and relationships that can help them avoid coming back.

The supper table, he says, is a great place to start.

"These are kids," he says. "For some of them, that's all they want in life — to have dinner. Something as simple as that can change things."

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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