Friday, December 22, 2006

Second Chances: Book to be published this fall

2nd chances: Juvenile justice groups are compiling stories like Gil Esparza's that show young people who get crossways with the law that a mistake made in your teenage years need not derail your adulthood
Kreimer, Peggy. Kentucky Post, June 20, 2006, pg. A1.

As CEO of his own company, Gil Esparza often wears a suit and white shirt. But beneath his business clothes, his arm is covered with gang tattoos.

"People look at me in a suit and say, 'That's a cool guy,'" said Esparza. "But in business casual, with a short sleeve shirt, it's 'Oh, my God.'

"I'm the same guy, but they frown on me because of how I look. That's what we do to kids all the time. We make a decision without looking inside."

Esparza says his life was changed because a juvenile court judge looked inside the young tough standing before him on an auto theft charge and saw someone worth saving.

Esparza, of Union, Ky., will tell his story in a book that Kentucky juvenile justice groups are publishing this fall as part of the 100th anniversary of the juvenile court system in Kentucky.

The work is called "Second Chances: Kentucky," and will include stories of a dozen people who had brushes with the law as juveniles and have gone on to build successful lives.

Some were youthful criminals, some were runaways, some ended up in the juvenile justice system as part of the state foster care system or because they were being neglected or abused, said Katherine Siereveld.

She's coordinating the project for the Children's Law Center in Covington, which is producing the book as part of a collaborative with Chase College of Law, the Administrative Office of the Courts, the Department of Public Advocacy and Susan Stokley Clary, the state Supreme Court clerk.

Most of the subjects of the book have been identified and interviewed, but there's still time to add a few names to the list, Siereveld said.

"We're not necessarily looking for the head of a Fortune 500 company," she said. "We're looking for someone who was involved with juvenile court and is now an established adult in the community."

One of the key provisions of juvenile court is its confidentiality, Siereveld said. "It allows children to start over at age 18 with a clean slate and not have juvenile mistakes hanging over their heads."

Part of the mission of the book is to encourage youths to take that second chance.

"Somewhere in their lives, something or someone gave them that second chance, or in some cases that third or fourth or fifth chance and said this doesn't have to be your fate. Your past doesn't have to define your future," she said.

The book includes stories of youngsters who got involved with drugs, who moved in and out of foster homes, who were hauled in front of judges. One woman is now a mother of five who volunteers in the community and works with the local schools. Another works in the legal system.

Esparza is a mentor to children, speaks in schools, started a Hispanic Resource Center to work with the growing Hispanic community in Northern Kentucky and four years ago launched his own business translating documents, films, commercials, training programs and anything else into Spanish or English. His Docu-Trans, with headquarters in Blue Ash, is its own success story.

But Esparza couldn't envision that kind of accomplishment when he was growing up in San Antonio in the 1960s, the ninth of 14 children. His father was a long-distance truck driver. His mother was loving but busy.

"I grew up in the civil rights era, when they started integrating ethnic people, mixing poor whites and poor Hispanics together in schools and neighborhoods," he said.

"I was 6 years old, and I was always fighting, defending my family. The white kids would call me the nastiest things. I would fight with a fury. I didn't realize I was caught in the middle of the civil rights movement."

His father was an alcoholic who spread fear through the household when he wasn't out on the job.

"When he was home, no one was safe. It was like walking on eggshells. You couldn't do anything right," Esparza said. "I found peace in the street. It was a breeding ground for bad things."

When he was 10, he often stuffed his Boy Scout backpack with saltines, a can of Beanie Wienies and two cans of V-8 for a weekend on the street. Gang members became his family.

"They'd have me running errands for them for 20 bucks, telling somebody where to go to pick up some dope."

He dropped out of school at 16 -- defiant and always ready for a fight or to make a quick buck. When he was close to 18, police arrested him as he was delivering a stolen car.

"I didn't steal it, but I was driving it. It was just a quick $500 to me," he said.

After three days in jail, he went before Judge "Hippo" Garcia.

"The judge told me he believed in me and knew I'd had a tough childhood. It was like he looked inside my heart and saw a little tiny flicker," Esparza said.

The judge offered Esparza a choice -- get his GED and join the military, or go to jail.

"The Navy recruiter took me into his home and helped me study for my GED. I was in boot camp by the end of the month," Esparza said.

That was in the mid 1970s.

"The judge was trying to get me in some structure, some discipline," Esparza said. "I fought the discipline for the first three years."

But he stayed in the Navy, and ended up making a career of it. When he retired in 1993, he was teaching chemical warfare defense, running training programs throughout Ohio and living in Boone County, where the Esparza family had moved to be near his wife's family.

"In the military, you make rank, and you're somebody. You have a sense of honor, achievement. When I came out, I was just a new guy in town, and Hispanic, in Kentucky," Esparza said.

He got a job inspecting electrical panels, enrolled at NKU, and started working with children through his church's youth ministry. He talked to kids about his past and the dangers of getting sucked onto the wrong path.

"Schools started calling me, asking me to speak to students," he said. "I became what I call an agent of hope."

He worked for Florence Elementary School, addressing truancy problems with one-on-one family visits, and has worked with other school systems.

As Northern Kentucky's Hispanic population grew, Esparza was called in more and more to help Hispanic students and their families. He launched his Hispanic Resource Center to help adults deal with everything from translations to jobs to legal matters.

Docu-Trans has expanded the translation business, working with corporations and universities.

Esparza still tells his story in schools and gives motivational talks to parents and children.

That's why he readily agreed when approached about being part of the Second Chances book.

"We all have to be agents of hope," he said. "We have to help kids understand there is a chance for change. We have to tell them we believe in them. If we stay with them, they're bound to start thinking, 'Hey, maybe I do have something. Maybe I am worth it.'"

The Second Chances book will be distributed to children who have come into contact with the juvenile justice system, social workers, judges, attorneys and the general public.

The stories show that the juvenile court system can make a profound difference in children's lives, said Children's Law Center Executive Director Kim Brooks Tandy.

She said the system has been coming under as "For 100 years, Kentucky Juvenile Courts have operated under the basic principles that recognize that children are different," she said. "We now know even more from the medical and psychiatric fields about the brain development of children that supports this concept."sault across the country with calls for tougher penalties and for more children to be tried as adults.

Although some high profile cases may lead people to believe youthful crime is escalating, statistics show the opposite is true, Tandy said. "This book should serve as a reminder to professionals and to kids that the juvenile courts can work and can give a second chance," she said. "It is still a good idea, after 100 years."

About the book
* The Second Chances: Kentucky book should be published this fall. Besides life stories, it will include artwork and poems by children in Kentucky's detention and diversion programs.

* Questions about how to get a copy of the book and suggestions for people to be included should be directed to Katherine Siereveld, (859) 431-3313.


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