Changing the Odds, One Youth at a Time

When Amanze Emenike was released from juvenile detention at 16 years old, he spent a year sleeping in cars, on the streets and on friends’ couches.

Four years later, Emenike was helping bring attention to the issue of homeless youth in San Francisco with the journalism skills he received through the Changing the Odds program offered by the District Attorney’s Office.Emenike was one of 12 young adults who recently graduated from Changing the Odds, an intensive 10-week training and mentoring program designed to help young adults turn their lives around. The Sept. 18 ceremony was held at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts.

The initiative grew out of a need to prevent nonviolent, low-level offenders exiting the juvenile justice system from re-entering it. But not all participants have committed offenses. Some youths are homeless or live in foster homes.

“We know the power, the beauty and the potential of our young people and we know that sometimes we all make mistakes.” But after being held accountable for those mistakes and having certain experiences Kamala D. Harris, district attorney for San Francisco, told the graduates, “We as a community need to make sure we’re doing all we can to help them reach their potential.”

The program gives young people ages 16 to 24 an opportunity to develop leadership and practical work skills, such as how to produce news articles and videos for the web. It offers them paid summer internships and housing assistance, childcare and other services.

The graduating class, which worked exclusively with New America Media, produced a public service announcement on the rights of incarcerated teen girls, and videos on issues affecting youth, including homelessness.

Emenike, who is a soon-to-be father, said many adults are unaware of the challenges homeless youths face.

“They think they’re bad people. But they may be the best people out there,” Emenike said. “Many get overlooked. They don’t get a chance for nothing.”

Kevin Weston, director for Youth Communications of New America Media, said it’s important for young people to tell their stories.

“If you want to talk about the war or if you want to talk about the criminal justice system, if you want to talk about health care — where the youth voice is completely lost in that debate — all of these things are what these young people are inheriting,” Weston said. “Their perspective right now is important.”

The program, which started in 2005, has helped launch careers for many.

Eighteen-year-old Vanessa Vega is an example.

Vega said she learned about the program after she was caught smoking a cigarette and kicked out of Baden High, a continuation school in South San Francisco. A counselor suggested she give the program a try.

“The first four weeks was learning job skills, learning to shake somebody’s hand and how to smile,” Vega said.

But it was the hands-on reporting and video production skills that helped her get an exclusive interview with relatives of slain Mark “Papa” Guardado, the president of the San Francisco chapter of the Hells Angels motorcycle club.

The piece, which was published in New America Media’s Yo! Youth Outlook Media, later appeared on the History Channel.

“This is very good to keep them off the streets,” said Paulina Traikov, mother of one of the program’s 2009 graduates. Her son, Mike, is now studying at San Diego State University.

For Emenike, getting the technical and editorial skills to produce multimedia stories has allowed him to discover a new passion. After the program, he was hired by New America Media to continue telling the stories of urban youth.

“I’m a video journalist. This is what I want to be doing,” he said.

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