2015 Spirit of Youth Awardee Raul Barreto Shares His Story

Facebook Twitter More...

During the CJJ Annual Conference, Raul Barreto of California was awarded the 2015 Spirit of Youth Award for his personal triumphs, professional achievements, and extraordinary services to others. His acceptance speech was extremely moving and a highlight for all who attended the conference. It has been reproduced below.  

Spirit of Youth Winner Raul Barreto
with Dan Seaver, his mentor

Spirit of Youth Award Acceptance Speech
2015 Awards Ceremony at the CJJ Annual Conference

By Raul Barreto

I grew up with a distorted understanding of the world and of the potential held in a human spirit. The ghettos of Los Angeles had no pity on me, my single immigrant mother of eight or my brothers and sisters.

I followed in my gang banging brothers' path and found myself drug-addicted and in a seemingly endless cycle of release dates and court dates for sentencing from new crimes. I was truly a product of an environment I did not choose. To put a cherry on top, the places I was sentenced to do time in taught me only to be more violent and confirmed that authority figures were an enemy of everything I stood for. 

I was lucky to meet a volunteer who believed in me and exposed me to the truth about my potential. That I could some day go to college, start a career, travel the world and provide for my family. There are countless kids without a choice growing up in similar circumstances as the ones that I grew up in who will never come across a mentor to redirect their perspective on life. 

My older brother, for example, went to many juvenile detention centers. No surprise as he was a young Latino growing up in Watts, experiencing verbal and physical abuse from my father. He went to a total of four camp programs in institutions that taught him only more violence and deepened his dedication to his gang. At the age of 19, he was charged with murder and was sentenced to 170 years to life.

My brother grew up without a ever learning about his potential. During those stays in juvenile detentions, he didn't get lucky like I did and meet a volunteer who took it upon himself to get involved in a kids life and inform him about the possibilities available to him. My brother is 35 now and has the rest of his life to serve in prison with an understanding of life sadly acquired too late for him to truly live. His fate could have easily been my own had someone not realized that the hand I was dealt was unfair and stepped in…and vice versa, my fate could have easily been his had someone stepped in for him. 

What if my brother had met a mentor during one of his stays in camp? Would it had saved his life from an endless sentence in a cell? Did he have the potential to some day fly to DC from LA to receive a national award for taking direction from a mentor? How many kids like him have we turned a blind eye on and let fall through the cracks of society? Kids like me who only needed someone to redirect their perspective on life? 

I am disgusted at the way we waste time, money and lives with the methods currently used in our juvenile justice systems. It is a shame that volunteers and outside programs have to gain permission to provide the types of services juvenile detentions ought to be implementing themselves. There is an opportunity when kids enter juvenile detention facilities to intervene and teach critical lessons that could change lives and ultimately whole communities.

Instead, millions of dollars are spent on herding children from so called schools to cinder block cells and hire guards instead of counselors to watch over them. I am thankful for those few beautiful souls who refuse to turn a blind eye and whom I’ve joined in the fight to stop the child abuse inflicted on our kids by a system that should be defending and strengthening them. Sadly, the amount of people making an effort to change an obvious problem dwarf in comparison to those who stand idly by while children are neglected. 

It is because of people like my mentor Dan that I am able to now go back to these kids in Los Angeles Juvenile detentions who look just like me, just like my brother and tell them the truth about their potential, that they could some day go to college, travel the world and provide for their families. Maybe even win a national award someday and get flown to DC to receive it. It is an honor to receive this award yes, but understand that I am but a drop in a tide of justice, just one person in a movement to fix our societies mistakes.

A lot has changed in the way that we look at incarcerated people over the last ten years and sitting here listening to people talk about the progress we’ve made and our goals moving forward is inspiring. I urge you all to please continue doing the work that you do so that some day a transformation like the one I’ve made Is so common that an award for it wouldn't exist.