WASHINGTON // Abdul Mujahid Rashid, 18, said he would probably be back in prison if not for a volunteer mentor who has spent at least an hour a week with him for almost three years, helping him to steer clear of crime and to return to school. Mr Rashid was sentenced to one year in Washington's juvenile detention centre in 2007 for his involvement in an armed robbery. Soon afterwards, he got a visit from a volunteer from Mentoring Today, a non-profit group that helps juveniles held in custody in the US capital.
"When I got out, they helped me get a job, helped me get in school, helped my mother when she had no food," he said. "I still see my mentor once a week because I like the programme, it's the best," he said. Mentoring Today has helped more than 30 young men like Mr Rashid since it was formed five years ago by Whitney Louchheim, 31, and Penelope Spain, 33, who became close friends at American University law school.
Their office is in Anacostia, an overwhelmingly African-American and poor neighbourhood of Washington, barely 10 minutes' drive from Capitol Hill, that few tourists or congressmen ever see. The average family income is less than $35,000 (Dh129,000), less than half the city average of just over $78,000, according to figures from Georgetown University. Mentoring Today has matched 35 volunteer mentors, almost all white, with youths who were all African-American except two who were Latino.
"We would love to match youths with African-American men because diversity is important, but research shows that race and gender doesn't matter as much as commitment," Ms Louchheim said. "Some of the mentees have said they met a white person for the first time in their lives through us." She said some of the young men she has helped had never even been to Dupont Circle, an upmarket neighbourhood barely 20 minutes away by metro.
She and her co-founder knew since their college days they wanted to do something that was socially constructive rather than just follow the career rat race to make money. Ms Louchheim went to a Quaker high school and is a Christian Scientist and Ms Spain is a Buddhist. "My understanding of Christianity is I want to use my skills and serve to the best of my ability," said Ms Louchheim, who is called "Ms Whitney" by the young men she helps.
She noted that many African-American men converted to Islam either while they were in prison or soon afterwards, as did Mr Rashid. "I think it's wonderful because Islam gives structure to their lives and it values loyalty, honesty and virtue," she said. "It validates their morals and pushes them to be better men. We've given out Qurans and had a request for a prayer mat from a young man in prison."
Mr Rashid said Islam was definitely helping him. "I read the Quran and it said it would help me to be humble and be on the right path," he said. "I still do stuff I'm not supposed to, like smoking cigarettes and seeing girls, but not drugs or anything like that." Ms Louchheim said a typical criminal career in Anacostia started with drugs possession, then drug-dealing and distribution to carjacking and armed robbery. Murder and sexual assault cases were less common.
"The poverty is very disturbing," Ms Louchheim said. "They see their mothers run out of food. They've never seen a man get up every day to go to work. They get into drug or arms dealing. But their motivations are good; they're trying to do right by their family. We don't justify it; it's just understandable." A lot of the young men come from single-parent homes. Many other minors were institutionalised in group homes from an early age or sent to a succession of foster homes, from which they would repeatedly run away. Physical and sexual abuse were a common experience.
"To me, they've grown up with unimaginable levels of violence. Sometimes they'll have lost up to 10 family members or friends who were shot and killed. One man had his brother die in his arms," Ms Louchheim said. "Violence is disturbingly normal as is jail. It's hard to imagine what that does to a child." Mentoring Today provides training to its volunteers, who are mostly women, on how to counsel where there is trauma, drugs, poverty.
Volunteers are not told the details of a mentee's criminal background. This helps the youth to start a new relationship with a clean slate and to build their confidence. Sometimes they might tell the volunteer if they hit a crisis or if several years have elapsed and they have become friends. "We start off the youths with simple goals, maybe just writing a sentence and we praise them, or not talking back to the staff" in the detention centre, Ms Louchheim said.
Often the youths cannot believe the volunteers are giving their time for no money and it can take several months to build up trust. "Many are sceptical at the beginning because they have extremely low expectations of adults. A mentee asked a volunteer twice last week why she came to visit when she wasn't paid. She explained she cared because she had a brother in the juvenile system," she said. "We try to boost their sense of self-worth and after a while they sense we care about them, too." Knowing that somebody was looking out for them was the first step away from reincarceration and towards a better life.