AK: A teenager and his past

Johnson Youth Center students whip up brown sugar shortbread and a hollandaise sauce. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)
Johnson Youth Center students whip up brown sugar shortbread and a hollandaise sauce. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)

It’s graduation season for Alaska’s high school seniors. Earning a diploma marks a milestone in a person’s life. And for one Juneau student, that milestone is especially sweet after his high school experience was interrupted with several trips to juvenile detention.

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At the Johnson Youth Center in Juneau, a handful of students are mixing, blending, and whisking their way through culinary class. It’s not easy stuff.

For J, an 18 year-old finishing his first year here, learning how to make crème brule was a big moment.

“It taste like heaven but in a custard way,” J said. “One time we tried to get the hard crust on the top, but we set off the fire alarm here.”

We’re not releasing J’s full name because, as a juvenile, his criminal record is confidential.

Although J’s graduating soon with his high school diploma, he still has another year left at JYC. The center houses juveniles for both the long and short term.

A “soft” room at the Johnson Youth Center. Residents must earn points to receive amenities like a couch. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)
A “soft” room at the Johnson Youth Center. Residents must earn points to receive amenities like a couch. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)

“Coming here I thought my life was over,” he said. “I was like ‘wow, what am I going to do now.’ But being here got me all these classes and activities that’s going to help me in the real world.”

J fell in love with culinary class pretty soon after coming to the center. Chef and teacher David Moorehead says cooking teaches the kids focus and managing expectations. Some have felony charges and are court ordered to spend two years locked up at JYC.

“I think this place can be really heavy on the kids. And this kind of gives them a little outlet,” Moorehead said. “So for some of them it’s the best thing since apple pie to be able to break away from the regimentation and learn something new.”

When he was in regular high school, he says J caved to peer-pressure. He’s not comfortable detailing the crime that landed him here, but he says he made a lot of poor decisions.

“I made a lot of mistakes over and over again,” J said.

Now he lives in the treatment wing, which is separate from short-term detention. Staff don’t refer to him as an inmate: He’s a “resident.” And the facility isn’t called a jail. Some of kids on the treatment wing, like J, are repeat offenders who were in and out of the system until the court appointed a longer stay.

“When you go through his file and you see how many times he has come to visit us,” Julie Black, a teacher’s aide, said. “You say, ‘huh,’ at what point didn’t you get it?”

She says it took some time, but eventually J started to come around.

“He all of a sudden woke up,” Black said. “Watching him buckle down and get to school and everyday I’d go down and see him, and you’d just see this kid doing everything he could to do it right.”

A Johnson Youth Center resident irons his gown for graduation. Four students at the center recently earned their high school diploma. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)
A Johnson Youth Center resident irons his gown for graduation. Four students at the center recently earned their high school diploma. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)

In part, J says his wake up call came after being sentenced to two years at the center.

“Like, two years of your life taken away,” J said. “After this, there’s no coming back to JYC. It’s the big boy house. There’s a lot of people counting on me. I don’t want to let them down.”

One of the people counting on him is his infant son. He had to miss the birth while he was serving his sentence.

“That was a really big disappointment in my life,” J said. “I was like I don’t want to go through this again. I don’t put my son through this. I just want to be there in his life when I get out of here and stay there.”

JYC offers counseling on being a good parent, dealing with stress and building healthy relationships. J says, during his time at the center, he’s learned a lot about himself. And he wants people to know, he’s not the same kid from day one.

“I’m not going to be that punk kid anymore that didn’t care what other people think or didn’t care about anything,” J said. “Like deep down inside, I do care. I’m not going have my mistakes define who I am today. I’m going to move past that.”

In a year or less, he will be back out in the world. He’s the first in his family to earn a high school diploma. He says he’s a little anxious about what the future will bring.

“I came here not having much responsibility except for going to school, but now I’m out have I have to hold a job, take care of my son, and like, live on my own,” he said. “And that gets me nervous, but not as nervous because I know I can do it.”

With the work-readiness training from JYC, J says he’s looking into careers in the culinary arts or mining.