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New London - Mentoring programs can help the community both by inspiring youths to pursue life goals and by assisting those incarcerated with spiritual and real-life needs, according to speakers at an event Saturday.
The third annual Community Prison Awareness and Prevention Gathering at Shiloh Baptist Church focused on the theme of preventing crime and mentoring youths. In workshops and lectures, about 40 attendees offered ideas to stop violence and build a safer community.
Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio spoke about the need to help "young people see a different path" and avoid entering the court system. He encouraged attendees to make the time to mentor youths in the community.
"One hour a week for one child, and you can change someone's life," he said.
Speakers discussed their experiences being mentored. Groton resident Kwan Jenkins, who was released last year from prison after serving 10½ years, said being mentored while in prison helped him reach his life goals.
Jenkins said his mentor, Sal Galtieri, guided him spiritually and helped him solve problems, such as how to find a job. Jenkins is now working as a cook, is pursuing an online bachelor's degree and got married last year.
"It transforms the mind of the individual within the prison walls," said Jenkins about being mentored.
Michelle Jones, an interventionist strategist at Norwich Free Academy who led a workshop on youth empowerment, said mentors can help teenagers build self-esteem and achieve goals, which are skills they can then apply to reach out to the community.
At the event, the church's Youth Dance Ministry performed. One participant, Taja Miller, a ninth-grade honors student at the Science and Technology Magnet High School, won an award for her essay on how she prevents crime in her community. She wrote about helping the environment and participating in arts education programs, such as Writers Block Ink.
"If everyone works together, we can make the community a better place for the youth," she said in an interview.
One workshop, led by Debbie Phillips of Shiloh and Stephane Browder of New Life Christian Fellowship in Ledyard, stressed community collaboration and encouraged residents to mentor youths in programs, such as the Boys & Girls Club of America, the YMCA and Big Brothers Big Sisters.
The southeastern Connecticut chapter is closing at the end of the month due to lack of funding, but Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Ocean State has announced it will take over the mentor matching program.
Other workshop speakers included Isa Mujahid of the American Civil Liberties Union, who spoke about ensuring all people are treated fairly under the law, and criminal prosecutor Lonnie Braxton, who discussed how families can set good examples for youths.
Social worker Winston Taylor, who facilitates the Shiloh Baptist Church's prison ministry program, said the church offers various community programs, but also partners with other churches and community organizations. He said he hopes the event spurs collaboration among community groups and residents.
The church has hosted the prison awareness programs to show how incarceration affects children and families, according to Taylor. This year's event focused on crime prevention in the wake of recent violence in society, including the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School and the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, he said.
The program honored the Drop-In Community Learning and Resource Center and the United States Naval Sea Cadets Corps in Groton with community service awards. Mark Lurry was named as the recipient of the award for an art contest on how to prevent crime in the community.
In a proclamation, read aloud by an event organizer, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy declared Oct. 26 as "community prison awareness and prevention" day in Connecticut.