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Beyond Labels: Redeeming Troubled Teens

The voice for the voiceless. That’s been part of Julita Sanders’ story since college.

The voice for the voiceless. That’s been part of Julita Sanders’ story since college.

"When I joined Delta Sigma Theta, my line name, 'the advocator,' was bestowed upon me. It's amusing in retrospect, considering they had limited knowledge of who I was at the time. Evidently, my predisposition towards assisting others was quite discernible. My commitment extends beyond generational boundaries, encompassing anyone in need. I perceive myself as a vocal advocate, representing those whose voices are often unheard in certain spaces. In my capacity as the Founder and Executive Director of Juvenile Offender Advocate, I ardently champion the cause of those who may not have a seat at the table."

The JOA is just that – a group of dedicated mentors paired with juvenile and state court offenders to help them navigate their options post-offense and provide a positive influence in their lives. JOA helps to hold these teens accountable for their actions while also empowering them to look toward a different way of life.

Every advocate within our organization is dedicated to accompanying their mentees throughout their court proceedings, offering guidance to navigate any trauma they may be experiencing, and ensuring they receive the services promised by court officials. These advocates extend their support to individuals ranging from 11 to early 20s, being present for every facet of the intricate journey often associated with the challenges faced by "troubled teens."

Having walked the path of a "troubled teen" in her own past, Julita truly gets the complexity of that label and the profound impact of having someone in your corner.

“At the time, the only way I knew how to deal with my trauma was to drink alcohol. Eventually, I began to hang out with the wrong crowd, skipping school and fighting,” she said “I recall Mr. D, my high school principal, calling me to his office daily asking me to give him my weapons. Somehow, he knew that I carried weapons, and he made sure he took them away from me.

"One day, just before my bus reached school, I found myself in a fight. In the heat of the moment, I even pulled out a knife. The police were called, resulting in my arrest. This incident led to a school board hearing, and subsequently, I was expelled from regular school. I was then directed to attend an alternative school for a duration of three months. Amidst the challenges, one redeeming aspect was my academic performance—I had consistently maintained good grades."

“During that school board hearing, my high school principal, the assistant principal, my bus driver and a few of my teachers were all in attendance. They advocated for me to return to school. If I did not have them advocating for me, I would not be where I am today; I sincerely thank them all! I know what it feels like to be judged and treated like you are not a good person because of how you choose to deal with unwanted trauma,” said Julita.

Because of her adolescence, Julita has a personal connection with JOA’s mission, but she didn’t think of starting her own resource until she was working with these teens as an adult.

“I used to be a case management clerk for juvenile court. And I noticed the same kids who were my students at the same alternative school I attended were coming through the system, and they were repeat offenders. Which caused a high recidivism rate – meaning I was seeing the same kids in trouble for the same types of things just a few weeks apart,” she said.

"There appeared to be a noticeable lack of accountability, with no one ensuring that the agencies responsible for delivering court-ordered services were fulfilling their obligations," she emphasized.

"We were inadvertently doing these kids an injustice by expecting them to adhere to certain rules and meet specific expectations without providing them with the necessary tools to succeed. This realization prompted my decision to initiate JOA. My goal was to bridge the gap and ensure that these young individuals had access to the right resources," she explained.

Even the best of intentions need help to get off the ground. That’s where the Athens Area Community Foundation comes in. They supported Julita from day one to start JOA.

"The Athens Area Community Foundation has played an incredibly vital role in the inception of JOA. I had a conversation with Sarah McKinney, the President and CEO of the foundation, five years ago when JOA was merely an idea. We discussed potential starting points, and then I took some time to gather my thoughts. A year later, I returned to her with a clear vision, expressing that this is what I wanted to do, and I needed assistance," shared Julita.

"Sarah and the community foundation played a pivotal role by offering us our first donation. This support facilitated the acquisition of our office space and provided the necessary resources, including supplies, books, and workbooks for our clients. It was truly incredible! Moreover, their ongoing commitment involves not only financial assistance but also consistent efforts to raise awareness about our organization. They regularly highlight our work and generously contribute to our cause."

With the help of donors from the Athens Area Community Foundation and the community in general, JOA has been able to make a lasting difference in youths’ lives.

"One of our initial clients was referred to us at the age of 16, grappling with homelessness and addiction to heroin and meth. Presently, 21, he has achieved nearly three months of sobriety and has managed to stay out of trouble. Our collaborative journey spans five years, cultivating a enduring relationship where he recognizes our unwavering support, understanding that we will consistently be there for him."

"Each client we engage with may not experience an immediate shift in mindset, but if we witness a cessation of troublesome behavior, and they actively strive towards productivity, that, to me, is a success story," expressed Julita.

Thanks to the collaboration with the community foundation, JOA, and Julita have not only extended their reach to more adolescents but also contributed to educating the public on the true nuances of being a 'troubled teen' and how they can actively support these young individuals.

"Our partnership with the Athens Area Community Foundation serves as a platform to dispel misconceptions and consistently convey the message that just because a young person faced challenges in school or made mistakes at the age of 16, it doesn't define them as inherently bad," asserted Julita. "I strongly believe that without advocates like my assistant principal, bus driver, and all those who stood up for me, I wouldn't be where I am today. I firmly advocate that the mistakes made in the adolescent years, when the brain is still developing, should not determine one's future opportunities. Everyone has something valuable to offer, and sometimes, all they need is a positive influence in their life to help them realize their potential."

Want to learn more about JOA and its mission? Visit their website

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