Downtown Miami

Nonprofit organization Empowered Youth uses job training to rehabilitate juvenile offenders

Empowered Youth program founder Colleen Adams, in background with long blonde hair, in the kitchen at Trinity Church in Miami, November 3, 2015.
Empowered Youth program founder Colleen Adams, in background with long blonde hair, in the kitchen at Trinity Church in Miami, November 3, 2015.

The aroma of garlic permeated the air as a group of about a dozen kids huddled around an old industrial stove, chopping, stirring and sauteing.

Each week, the participants of Empowered Youth, a community program that provides juvenile offenders with job training, gather at Trinity Church in downtown Miami to craft dishes like celery-root slaw, kimchi hot dogs and furikake French fries under the tutelage of a local chef. Brad Kilgore of Alter Miami helmed the stovetop on this particular evening in early November, demonstrating with reverence how to cut into a massive loaf of brioche.

To the untrained eye, the kids of Empowered Youth are just learning how to cook. But in reality, they are learning much more: They are learning that there is a way out.

“It’s easier to get an AK-47 in Liberty City than a vegetable,” Empowered Youth founder Colleen Adams said. “But if you invest in these kids, if you restore what was never given to them, what you get in the end are these incredibly fine young men.”

Empowered Youth offers group counseling, entrepreneurship courses and practical job training to male juvenile offenders.

Those who graduate from its six-month court-mandated program have the option stick around and work for Empowered Youth’s culinary endeavor: a food truck called Vibe 305 that calls the Wynwood arts district home.

Vibe 305 offers hungry visitors gussied-up American fare, like a short-rib Reuben sandwich made with pumpernickel bread and Italian garnish. The idea for the truck came to Adams when she realized exactly how hostile the job market could be to juvenile offenders.

“These people pay their debt to society and (society) makes it impossible for them to find work,” said Walters, a former director of the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice.

Vibe 305 fills the gap between Empowered Youth’s résumé-building initiatives and the real world’s professional challenges.

Empowered Youth is one of the many “community-based programs” with which the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice partners to offer alternatives to residential programs, which function much in the same way prisons do. According to Florida DJJ director of research Mark Greenwald, the state has in recent years shifted away from one-size-fits-all punitive approaches to more nurturing rehabilitative measures, like Empowered Youth.

“Somebody needs to shepherd these kids into a productive adulthood,” said Wansley Walters, a former director in the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice. “Some people say it’s government intrusion, but I say it’s the best kind because we are saving them. And the data shows that.”

There were more than 20,000 juvenile arrests in Miami-Dade County per year in the 1990s. That number has decreased to about 7,000 per year. Rates of recidivism have dropped, as well. The number of juvenile offenders who are sent to residential programs has reduced by more than 75 percent in the past decade.

Anecdotes match the data.

Christopher Major, an 18-year-old graduate of Empowered Youth who was charged with possession of a firearm, wouldn’t change anything about his past if given the chance because he’s glad to have found his way to Empowered Youth.

“Thank God,” said Major, who grew up in a Miami Gardens neighborhood he likens to a warzone.

Adams says running a nonprofit organization is not without its challenges. Empowered Youth and Vibe 305 both run “lean and mean,” she said, relying mostly on donations and small government grants. But it is fulfilling all the same to play a role in bettering lives.

“This is not a spectacular thing for me to be doing,” she said. “It’s just the right thing.”