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DJJ Awards Four Youth Success Ambassadors During Children’s Week

DJJ Recognizes Four Outstanding Floridians with Youth Ambassador Awards During the Annual Children’s Week Celebration
DJJ Secretary Wansley Walters: “Today’s children are tomorrow’s leaders …”

Tallahassee, Fla. – Today, Florida Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Wansley Walters presented Youth Ambassador Awards to four Florida residents who either participated or are currently participating in DJJ prevention, diversion, day treatment and residential programs and have overcome adversity or poor choices to stand forth as examples of the success at-risk and troubled youth are capable of attaining.

DJJ Secretary Walters also announced that since she began leading the department in 2011, detention admissions have decreased by 17.7 percent, the percentage of youth disposed to residential commitment has decreased by 32.2 percent and youth arrests have decreased by 22.6 percent.

“We must remember that today’s children are tomorrow’s leaders,” said DJJ Secretary Wansley Walters. “Too often, youth who enter the juvenile justice system wind up so deeply entrenched that by the time they are released, they have few options aside from a life of crime and the adult prison system. We have been working to turn that around and today I am thrilled to present the state of Florida with these inspirational stories of youth who recognized that their past did not have to define their future.”

Florida Juvenile Justice Association Executive Director Cathy Craig-Myers joined Secretary Walters in recognizing the 2013 Youth Ambassadors and emphasized the importance of highlighting Florida’s youth success stories.

“Staying on the right path isn't always easy for young people, many who face family struggles, educational challenges, substance abuse, or behavioral issues. We continue to be inspired by youth who have successfully turned their lives around," said Cathy Craig-Myers, Executive Director of the Florida Juvenile Justice Association. “Their commitment to change makes these youth an important asset to Florida’s future success."

Secretary Walters presented the following 2013 Youth Ambassadors with a certificate and a youth investment award: 

  • Christopher Casanovas was nominated by Home Builders Institute, a program that trains individuals for construction-related careers. Starting at age 13, Christopher made choices that led to a series of arrests and gradually deeper involvement in the juvenile justice system, including commitment to a DJJ high-risk residential program. Finally, he entered a local Home Builders Institute (HBI) program, where he completed more than 300 hours of community service. He graduated from HBI in April 2010. Because of his HBI training, experience and certification, he was soon hired for a full-time construction job. He is now working as an electrician in South Florida. Even more amazing are the changes he has made in his personal life. Christopher is active in his church, he coaches little league football, and contributes time to “A Stand up Man,” a community mentoring group. He has remained active with HBI, and returns to offer motivational speeches to youth in the program. In November 2012, he was selected by HBI to share his experiences at the National Association of Workforce Development Professionals conference in Chicago, Illinois, where his participated on a panel discussion about how his career technical training helping him overcome obstacles and rise to a brighter future. Christopher serves as an excellent example of the positive changes HBI makes in the lives of at-risk and troubled youth. HBI’s motto is, “The Road to Success is Always Under Construction.”
  • Dennis Patton, nominated by Eckerd Youth Challenge, shows how important it is to get the right help at the right time. A child of divorce and raised by a single mother, Dennis’s anger exacerbated his educational difficulties. When he was arrested for the first time at age 17 for selling drugs, he was finally able to get much-needed assistance and begin working toward his GED. Dennis says, “I was blessed to come to Eckerd. I once had no goals, but now I’ve set both short-term and long-term goals for myself. I want to keep progressing for myself and my mother, who I don’t want to let down again.” Dennis plans to earn a commercial driver’s license. He says his goal is to provide for his family through honest work.
  • Kiara Warren, who became a mother at the tender age of 13, was nominated by Prodigy Cultural Arts Program, a research-based delinquency prevention, intervention and diversion program offered at the University Area Community Development Corporation (UACDC) in Tampa, which serves youth between the ages of 7 and 17. Kiara started on the wrong path and was arrested on a misdemeanor charge, but the judge referred her to Prodigy as a diversionary opportunity to set her on the right path, and she has turned her life around. She is described as, “determined, smart, hardworking, tenacious, strong, willing caring, driven, responsible, courageous and mature.” Kiara is a dedicated mother and remains committed to her education. She plans to become an ultrasound technician after she graduates from Evans Community School in Orlando this year.
  • Danny Lugo, nominated by the Florida Institute for Community Studies at Prodigy Cultural Arts Program, is an honor roll student taking advanced placement and honors classes at Alonso High School in Tampa. Danny participated with Prodigy’s delinquency prevention efforts, and has never been arrested. Danny spends much of his extracurricular time participating in the positive activities offered by Prodigy, including Students Working Against Tobacco, Teen Outreach Program and the Community Advisors Program. He has participated in Prodigy’s breakdance class since September 2010. He performs at the Prodigy Showcase events and is one of the leaders of a dance crew at his high school.  Danny demonstrates both civic responsibility and leadership, and is always willing to help with younger students.

Rep. Gayle Harrell, chair of the House Healthy Families Subcommittee, expressed her support of the Youth Ambassador’s achievements. She said, “I am incredibly proud of these young people who, despite hardships, persevered and chose the path to success. It takes a great deal of courage to recognize the need for improvement and consciously decide to make the necessary changes. I commend the young people DJJ acknowledged on their accomplishments.”

Rep. Ray Pilon, vice chair of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee commented, “I commend the young people DJJ acknowledged today on their accomplishments. I also want to thank the Department of Juvenile Justice for their constant commitment to helping the youth in their care develop the skills they need to reach their full potential long after they’ve left the juvenile justice system.”  

DJJ joined Children's Week this year to share the successes of at-risk and troubled children, and the partnerships that make youth achievement possible. Children's Week brings together concerned citizens, stakeholders and service agencies from across Florida to the Capitol to share valuable information concerning children's issues. DJJ facilities and contracted providers throughout the state this week are holding local events celebrating the success of children within their communities.

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2013 DJJ legislative flyer