James is the kind of guy who can crush your party and then give you a good reason for his action. Spontaneity runs in his veins. He is that guy who is not afraid to knock on doors and push for what he believes in.
He calls me one Saturday afternoon and informs me that he is on his way to my place. He arrives about 30 minutes later. He informs me that he has been going to bike shops asking for support towards the half way cycle (James and crew are cycling from Nairobi to Kisumu this December to raise awareness and funds for his work with boys in juvenile prison).
And he got support, one shop owner donated 1 jersey, 11 jackets, 3 pairs of shoes and a pair of shorts. Such is the life of James.
But James hasn’t always been like this. He is a much more reserved person.
James is like this because of boys. He knocks on doors and does things he wouldn’t otherwise do because of a vision he has for boys in juvenile prison, that they will be mentored and upon release reintegrated back into society to lead meaningful lives.
That’s what keeps James awake at night.
Trust issues behind bars
As we got to chat with James, it became apparent that volunteer work, especially in juvenile prison, is not easy.
Because there are trust issues.
From James’ experience, many people have gone to prison and promised things and which they never delivered.
‘I don’t understand why people are always under pressure to promise things and end up not honouring their promises’ James laments.
So James has an uphill task of winning the trust of boys in prison, which has been broken over and over again, before he can be able to get their attention to what he really wants to teach them.
And that takes time, and consistency, and not overselling.
‘I tell everyone who comes with me to prison not to promise the boys anything, unless they can deliver in the shortest time possible’
I think to myself that we are not so different from the politicians we detest. It is just that their audience is bigger. Politicians promise many things to many people and our loathing is confirmed when they don’t deliver. We have also made promises, albeit small to small audiences, but have we delivered?
James has also learnt not to involve everyone in his prison work. He has been disappointed enough. He has approached people who ‘looked like’ they could help him and ended up not helping at all.
I figure out that the reason why James is working so hard for to have the Halfway house is because he doesn’t want to disappoint the boys. He wants to give them something authentic, something real, a place they can really belong and call home.
A bit about the halfway house, which is the reason James and crew are cycling to Kisumu.
Lifesong, the organization that James runs wants to provide a house where boys leaving juvenile prison can stay for some time upon release, be mentored in character development and business skills, be helped to reconcile with those they wronged and eventually reintegrated back to society.
This is one promise that James wants to keep.
‘Growing up, nobody taught me to be a man of my words but that is what I teach the boys’ James says, adding that his actions have to be aligned as well.
According to James, boys in prison don’t feel like they are in control of their lives. They blame circumstances and their backgrounds on the choices they have made. Some have been controlled or decisions have been made for them all along.
They don’t really believe that they have power over their thoughts and actions.
The message of personal responsibility hasn’t really hit home. And this concerns me. I probe James on how he goes about it.
‘I use my personal story, I tell them the mistakes I have made in life and how I overcame them, I become vulnerable to them’ James says.
It happens that James has spent 7 days in remand prison before. It is not much but the boys relate to that. They understand mistaken identity, being wrongly accused, having no one visit you in prison, having no lawyer, having no bail money and so on.
James is trying to teach the boys personal responsibility, that they can say no to crime, that they have it in them to choose their destinies, that they are more powerful in their minds than they think.
Upon leaving prison, many of the boys end up in gangs and eventually back to prison. Gangs have such an attraction because it feels like family to them. Usually their real families have disowned them because of the crimes they have committed. Sometimes families move and when they come out of prison, they simply can’t find their families.
The sad reality is that gangs are ‘safer’ for boys leaving juvenile prison than churches.
‘Where are the men to support these boys’ is the question James will never stop asking.
Hence the importance of the halfway house, a safe place where boys can stay as they figure out their next move.
I introduce James to Jordan Peterson’s self-authoring program (a program that helps you explore your past, present and future by writing).
According to Jordan Peterson, people who spend time writing carefully about themselves become happier, less anxious and depressed and physically healthier. They become more productive, persistent and engaged in life. This is because thinking about where you came from, who you are and where you are going helps you chart a simpler and more rewarding path through life.
Everyone can use this to chart a new life for themselves, including the boys in juvenile prison.
James wants the boys to take charge of their own lives.
He wants them to leave juvenile prison and become men who can be good examples to other men. He wants them to go back to their hoods and show everyone that it is possible to turn their lives around. He wants them to be responsible men in society.
Supporting boys, especially those who have committed crimes may seem out of place, but it is absolutely worth it.
You may be reading this while James and crew are cycling to Kisumu from Nairobi with stopovers at Naivaisha, Nakuru, Kericho. They are raising awareness about the work of Lifesong in juvenile prisons and also raising funds for the halfway house.
You can plug in and support Lifesong today.
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