Mentoring Programs for Troubled Teens

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Dante Cottingham:  Principal IOU Future Project Mentor

Like walking through a forest in the middle of a moonless night, unable to see properly I tripped and fell, made bad decisions, and took wrong turns throughout my childhood. I began running away from home at age 12. I joined a street gang, began skipping school and selling hard drugs when I was 13. I dropped out of high school in my freshman year at 14. At 15 I'd been in Juvenile detention homes on several occasions and was eventually sent to Lincoln Hills, a prison for juveniles. After being released 6 months later, at 16, I re- adapted many of my old ways, at 17 I learned my girlfriend was pregnant, just 2 months later I was arrested, charged as an adult and convicted of party to the crime of 1st degree homicide. I was sentenced to life in prison with parole eligibility in the year 2020 when I'll be 42 years old. I was then sent to an adult maximum security prison, Green Bay Correctional Institute. Though the early years of my imprisonment were plagued with conduct reports and time in the hole I eventually began to grow up. While serving years in the hole, in administrative confinement, I began to honestly and thoroughly evaluate my history, present and future. An evaluation that persisted over the years and that has led me to this place where I completely understand: 1. How I ended up in prison at such a young age 2. The ingredients of the combination of efforts that would of taken me off the path to prison.

Because I undoubtedly know that my childhood path could of been averted the same must be true for other children as well. So I've created a program based on what would of been effective with me. The program is called the IOU FUTURE PROJECT. It connects the youth of today with the wisdom and insight of the youth of yesterday whom have traveled a similar path, made similar mistakes and experienced similar pressures. The IOU Future facilitators and mentors give presentations at youth organisations and facilities. As the IOU Future mentor I participate via speakerphone. I tell them my story, I present myself as an example of what not to do and I explain why I have made many of my mistakes. We present topics that are connected to my story and then break them up into 2 groups to make pro's and con's lists. For example: We'd ask one group to make a pro list and the other to make a con list about joining a street gang. Then I'd address the list utilizing my intimate understanding of the issue. There are several topics we address. At the end of the presentation I share with the teams that I am certain that if I had dreams as a teenager I would not be in prison today, for dreams are that powerful. We then present them with a dream pledge, upon signing the pledge we give them a light blue bracelet with the word 'Dream' upon it, a reminder to dream. I know that as a teen I would of listened to the right message, the right mentor. I know that if that mentor had led me to think deeply about the pros and cons of joining a gang I would not of joined. I know that if I had been inspired to dream, to see myself as something bigger than a gang member, a school drop out, a drug dealer etc I would not be in prison today! 

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To request an IOU presentation at your community center/youth club/school etc 

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“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

Tips for Teens

When I look at my history and analyse the mistakes I made as an adolescent it's apparent to me that many of my mistakes could of very easily been avoided. With the right information, the right influence and guidance my path to prison could of been diverted to college. There are so many things that I wish I'd known, of which are the things that I intend to share with you, through telling you my story, answering questions and sharing with you my solutions to the various situations. The following are other questions that I answered -

 1. Why did you smoke Marijuana and sell drugs?

 2. Why did you skip school and eventually drop out of high school? 

3.How did you adapt to being in an adult maximum security prison as a child?

 4. What is the most important advice do you think I need to know?