Youth Get Life Lessons from Inmates

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TOPEKA, Kan. - Northeast Kansas middle schoolers are spending their Saturday mornings learning the importance of community involvement and leadership.

The 24th Young Citizens Academy began Saturday, Oct. 4. For the second session on October 11, the academy welcomed three inmates from the Topeka Correctional Facility to share their stories with the students. They were able to ask questions and discuss life choices and consequences with the panel.

Each of the three women is in jail for a drug-related issue. They each said the beginning of their problems began when they were about the students' ages: 12 to 14.

"So many teenagers have a lot of attempts to drink and do drugs," said Cruz Gallegos, an eighth grader in the academy. "That's not something we all want to do. We hope to hear that we can all be something and we don't have to say yes to be cool."

The inmates told students saying yes to drugs or alcohol may seem harmless in the beginning, but can lead to major life problems.

"Addiction can affect anybody," said one of the women, who did not wish to be identified. "It doesn't matter what kind of lifestyle you come from, what you look like, it can affect anybody. And by the time you realize you're addicted, it's too late."

One of the women told the students that her biggest regret is that she didn't listen to the people who told her not to get high. "I wouldn't be sitting here in prison if I had."

Next week (Oct. 18), the Youth Academy will tackle the issues of underage drinking and youth dating. Representatives from Alcohol Beverage Control and Battered Women's Task Force will be present to speak to the students.

During the week 4 session, students will be part of a mock jury trial, and on the fifth Saturday they will see other elements of law enforcement, including bomb unit, Highway Patrol and K-9 Unit. A graduation ceremony will follow the week 5 session.

"We want our youth to get involved, to let them know they are part of this community as well as adults," said Lynn Smith, Youth Development Coordinator and Community Mobilizer. "This is their community just as much as it is ours so we want them to foster and enhance those skills they currently possess and become involved and proactive in our community."

The next Young Citizens Academy will be held in March 2009. It's free of charge. To sign up, call Lynn at Safe Streets, (785) 266-4606.