Florida’s Youth Success Ambassadors


I am proud to present the 2013 DJJ Youth Success Ambassadors. These teens participated in DJJ prevention, diversion, day treatment and/or residential programs and have overcome adversity or poor choices to stand forth as examples of the success our at-risk and troubled youth are capable of attaining.

They have shared their experiences and plans with me and, as I imagine their future achievements, I predict they will continue to rise to and surpass the goals they have set for themselves. If we could look 20 years into the future, what would we see from these strong, energetic young people? Let’s imagine who they might be in 2033 . . .

As a teen, Dennis Patton was arrested and sent to Eckerd Youth Challenge. With Eckerd’s help, he turned his life around. Now he owns a custom semitrailer and loves the traveling he does as an independent, long-haul truck driver. As he pulls into a rest area, he sees a teen hitchhiking. He calls the kid over and strikes up a conversation. Over a snack he buys for the hungry kid, they talk. The teen’s bravado and glibness give way, and the boy tells the trucker about his recent troubles. Dennis can plainly see the shame of the boy’s bad choices and a yearning to be reconciled to his family. Listening and reflecting, he makes up his mind to help. He pulls out his cell phone and starts making calls to family, friends — the kid’s and his own. If necessary, he will contact the authorities; he will find someone to help this kid. He has been there. He knows where the teen’s path can lead, and he remembers the people who helped him find his way. Payback feels good.

Kiara Warren had a baby at age 13, but got back on track with help from Prodigy Cultural Arts Program. Now, she is an ultra sound technician at Orlando Regional Medical Center, but this spring she graduates from the University of Central Florida’s College of Nursing. Returning to nursing school part-time with a family to care for wasn’t easy, but her family takes center stage in her life. She was inspired by her eldest son, who will finish medical school next year, and she couldn’t be prouder. Imagine — her son, a pediatrician.

Christopher Casanovas got in a lot of trouble as a teen until the Home Builders Institute gave him an opportunity to gain valuable employment skills, building his confidence and giving him a sense of purpose. He is now the most successful electrical contractor in Boca Raton. His company has gained a reputation for reliability and attention to detail. He employs 40 full-time and two part-time employees. Over the past 20 years, he has mentored dozens of young men through “A Stand Up Man” and coached hundreds of boys in little league football in Tamarack. He is a source of strength for his family, and a pillar of his community.

Danny Lugo was always a good student. As a husband, father, Hillsborough County commissioner and the owner of an internet business, he stays busy. Service to his community is enormously important to him, so he continues to volunteer with his alma mater, Alonso High School, and is especially proud to serve on the Board of Directors for the University Area Community Development Corporation, Inc. (UACDC). As a teen, he was active in the UACDC’s Prodigy Arts Program, which helped him stay positive.

Today’s investment in youth will benefit all of us in time. DJJ is committed to helping kids avoid or correct youthful mistakes and placing them on the path to a brighter future.

I encourage you to join DJJ offices, partners and providers as they host celebrations and activities throughout the state this week. Our DJJ Youth Success Day motto reminds us that we are all “Part of the Community, Part of the Solution” to juvenile delinquency. With our help, all DJJ youth can achieve!

Wansley Walters was appointed as secretary of the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice by Gov. Rick Scott in January 2011. For more information on DJJ’s Roadmap to System Excellence, a guide to comprehensive juvenile justice system reform based on community collaboration, please visit http://www.djj.state.fl.us/roadmap-to-system-excellence or email roadmap@djj.state.fl.us.

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