On January 9th 2019, Valley State Prison (VSP) held its second annual youth offender program (YOP) graduation to recognize the graduating YOP class of 2019 for completion of a year dedicated to their rehabilitation. It was a great day for all those who attended.
Those in attendance included R. Fisher, jr. (VSP warden) and his administration, VSP staff, 75 YOP graduates, who also had the opportunity to invite two family members each to celebrate their accomplishment, and about 30 guests from various outside organizations. Although all guests were appreciated, one guest in particular stood out – he was the keynote speaker, Andy Vences, a WBC super featherweight champion with a record of 21W, 0L, 12 KO, 1draw, 22 bouts!
The graduation began with a warm welcome and introduction from E. Alva to all guests and family members. Ms. Alva shared highlights of the VSP YOP program. Ms. Alva explained how each graduate took part in a cognitive behavioral therapy curriculum throughout the year, and encouraged each graduate to be very proud of them- selves for their commitment to stay the course. R. Fisher, Jr, (VSP warden) spoke to the crowd congratulating them and reminding them to “not count the days to their release date, rather to insure that each day counts by doing something positive.
V. Trillo, YOP lead inmate facilitator, gave a brief speech on rehabilitation and inspired each participant to continue to accept responsibility for their actions and to restore themselves to integrity in how they live their lives.
After delivering his speech, Trillo introduced the YOP obedience dogs and the inmate dog trainers to perform. C. Gonzalez and his dog Bella took to the floor followed by A. Vivero and his dog Yeti and D. Grant and his dog Remi. This part of the program was a crowd pleaser and all did an awesome job demonstrating basic commands.
S. Monroe, volunteer dog trainer, then proudly addressed the crowd about the hard work the youth offenders and mentors are doing by training the former shelter YOP dogs to become therapy dogs to be adopted by loving families. The gymnasium was filled with positive energy following the YOP dog performance and the energy continued to build as the champ, A. Vences, delivered a powerful message focusing on the mental aspect of life.
His message was that obstacles do arise for everyone as they move forward, but having mental strength and determination allows each of us to overcome and learn from these obstacles. His speech touched all as he shared his own obstacles and struggles and how he overcame them by being mentally strong and remaining committed to his goals and dreams.
After the champ finished encouraging the young men to continue to keep strong, K. Kilber, YOP facilitator, and R. Edwards, YOP mentor, blew the roof off the gymnasium with a musical performance entitled “YOP” Hands were clapping, feet stomping and bodies moving to the beat as the lyrics echoed from the speakers at each corner of the gym. Smiles were evident on everyone’s faces as Kilber and Edwards proudly dropped the mics and thanked the administration for having a program like the YOP in which they were able to join in the growth of the YOP’s, while also showcasing their talent.
B. Hernandez, YOP resource officer, kept the positive energy flowing as he delivered his speech focusing on motivating graduates and mentors to take the next positive step and stepping up in their lives to become successful. He ended his speech by giving an example of what stepping up means by introducing the next guest speaker, C. Broadnax, who was formerly incarcerated at VSP and worked under c.o. Hernandez as the YOP lead facilitator. Broadnax and fellow formerly incarcerated inmates, E. Dey, K. Chandler and A. Trevino all delivered impactful speeches relaying their experiences as law abiding, productive citizens living fulfilling lives. One by one they encouraged the graduates to reach their full potential.
YOP inmate facilitators. D. Fedorenko, L. Berkson, J. Debacco, J. Hader and J. Miller all gave speeches reflecting upon their personal life stories, and how each is honored to teach and mentor the YOP participants. They also introduced the following yop graduates to deliver their speeches: N. Riggs, D. Grant, T. Medina, Z. Aisporna, N. Ortega and V. Mendez, all of whom spoke about their positive growth experiences in the YOP program and how the curriculum and support has encouraged them, even in difficult times.
Our final guest speakers were K. Dinsmoor, H. Lazar, B. Van sickle and B. Vazquez from the nonprofit group, reevolution. Reevolution sponsors the YOP junior mentor leadership program. This program is the first of its kind and gives graduating YOP participants the opportunity to continue their rehabilitation by participating in a unique leadership training program. The program is designed to take place over a two-year period with the ultimate goal being that junior mentors become mentors upon completion. 15 junior mentors were recognized for their one year participation in this program. P. Gallo- way, junior mentor facilitator, congratulated all 15 of these young men as they made their way to the stage to demonstrate to the crowd that unity and commitment is at the forefront of their rehabilitation.
Once the speeches wrapped up, the actual graduating ceremony commenced with E. Alva calling up to the front all graduates one by one to receive their certificates.
Cake and punch were served and visiting ensued with lots of laughter and pride until the event concluded at 2:30 pm.
We would like to extend full appreciation to all who helped make this event possible, and thank all guests and family members for their attendance and support.