Church Mentors Balance Weight of Bad Influences They Strive to Sway Juvenile Offenders

Article excerpt

Byline: Mary Maraghy, Times-Union staff writer

Dercy Long was released from a juvenile detention center in December.

Long, now 19, was determined to change his ways. But when back in his old Jacksonville neighborhood, he found change was hard.

Having grown up in foster homes, he had no parents to turn to.

So he called Dean Hollingsworth, a mentor who counseled him when he was incarcerated. Hollingsworth invited Long to live with him in Baldwin.

Long gave up his city roots for small-town life with a new family he calls "the Waltons." He has a job, new friends and plans to begin classes in May at Florida Community College at Jacksonville.

Gov. Jeb Bush has preached about the need for mentors for juvenile offenders -- exemplified by Hollingsworth and several other mentors from Evangel Temple Assembly of God on Jacksonville's Westside.

Area officials in juvenile justice laud the work they have done.

For about five years, mentors from Evangel Temple have held worship services, pizza parties, holiday celebrations and basketball games at a juvenile detention facility called Tiger Success Center.

The center houses serious or habitual offenders ages 14 to 18. Their crimes include armed robbery, sexual battery, arson, burglary, drug possession and auto theft.

Twice a month, the mentors meet one on one with offenders to discuss decision-making, goal-setting, dating, sex and family issues. They also keep in touch with offenders after they're released, which means following some of the young men into their crime-ridden or drug-infested neighborhoods.

That's unusual, said Cassandra Wright, executive director of Tiger Success Center.

"Some of those environments, I wouldn't go in," Wright said. "But they don't let it stop them."

One mentor, 68-year-old Jim Garrett, said tracking young men after their release is tough because they often have their telephones disconnected. They move from one place to another or change jobs. But it's worth the effort, Garrett said.

"I thoroughly enjoy it. It's not an imposition," he said. "We get close to these boys. They become our friends."

But it can be painful.

"It hurts to lose contact," Hollingsworth said, "when they decide they'd rather run with their old friends."

Long decided differently -- after finding he again was surrounded by bad influences after his release. …