Glenn Smith heard the same thing over and over in the life skills classes he led at the Mecklenburg County Jail: If I had learned this stuff when I was younger, I probably wouldn't be here.
After hearing this refrain for six years, Glenn proposed a youth prevention program to the Juvenile Crime Prevention Council, the group that decides which organizations get money from the crime prevention funds the NC Department of Public Safety gives the county each year. Glenn ended up getting his program funded, and he set to work, inspired by those words from the inmates at the county jail: If I had learned this stuff when I was younger, I probably wouldn't be here.
Sixteen years later, Glenn's program has become Life Connections of the Carolinas, a nonprofit with 16 programs in 9 counties. Through life skills, mentorship, and advocacy programs, Life Connections works to create the conditions for all individuals, families, and communities to strengthen themselves.
Under the Developing Adults Strengthening Humanity (DASH) umbrella, Life Connections provides personal development programs for people who are incarcerated; mentor programs for youth ages 7-17, often referred from juvenile court or other agencies; and the Strengthening Families program where young people and their parents or guardians learn how to create a stronger and healthier family.
Life Connections uses an innovative youth-initiated mentor model, where a coach helps the young person take inventory of the supportive adults already in his life and identify his own mentor. A Life Connections coach then helps the mentor support the young person. It's all set up to teach kids how to seek out natural supports and positive guidance with their own networks, rather than pairing a kid with someone they don't know. "We take a positive relationship and leave it even stronger," says Glenn, who ran group homes and had a private psychotherapy practice before founding Life Connections.
BEFORE AND AFTER
One of the young men Glenn met in his classes is Trisco McFarland. After Trisco's parents separated when he was young, "things got out of order real quick," says Trisco in this Life Connections video. "Between the ages of eight and ten I had secured my foot on a path that was leading me to destruction."
That path led him to the county jail as a young man, where he signed up for Glenn's life skills program. And that's when he started changing into the man he is today. "In my life I had never been challenged to think about what serves me and what doesn't," recalls Trisco. "I was not familiar with introspection, at looking around myself to see why everything around me was falling apart."
The skills Trisco learned from Glenn and Life Connections put him on a different path. He learned to be a better listener and he saw how his choices affect the quality of his life. "I had spent so much time growing something I didn't even want. It's like growing a lemon tree when you don't eat lemons."
Trisco is now a business owner, a husband, a father of two, and a member of the Life Connections board of directors. "My life now is awesome," says Trisco, who knows what he wants and, thanks to the seeds planted by the Life Connections program, he knows how to get there. "I want to show my son what a man is supposed to do. I want to show my daughter how a man is supposed to treat a woman. I want to build a solid foundation for my children that's shaped by everything that I am today."
HOW YOU CAN HELP
There are two ways you can help make a difference and keep kids out of jail. First, you can volunteer to share your love of art, music, sports, or a vocation with young people. Glenn and his team welcome people who can help their kids find an outlet and learn a skill or develop a talent. Let them know you want to help here.
You can also make a difference by donating. Life Connections gets funding for its programs through the NC Department of Public Safety — but their budget was cut 30% this year and they get no funding for operations like compensating their staff or providing benefits. For that, they rely on donations. "We are doing everything we can to fill that 30% gap," says Glenn.
Want to know how far a gift to Life Connections will go? Taxpayers pay $100,000 each year to keep one inmate in the system. It costs $1,000 per year for Life Connections to serve one family. We end up paying either way. When we pay to prevent, we help stop cycles of incarceration. We allow young people to reach their potential. We help families heal. We support mentorship that lasts a lifetime. The choice is easy. Make a donation here or contact Life Connections to talk about how you help.
Grace Kennedy is a Huntersville-based writer specializing in storytelling for nonprofits. Learn more at gracekennedy.net.