The demeanor of thirteen San Mateo Juvenile Hall residents quickly turned from reticent, and reserved to outgoing, enthusiastic and motivated as they took part in a question and answer period with 49ers Craig Dahl, Dan Skuta and Michael Wilhoite in collaboration with Fresh Lifelines for Youth (FLY) during the first of the 2014 Community Monday events for the 49ers. When they arrived, the 49ers visitors did not know what to expect as they entered the stark walls of the juvenile detention center. From the moment, Dahl, Wilhoite and Skuta were introduced, they immediately had the attention and respect of the youth, sharing their stories and expressing the dedication they have all poured into overcoming adversity and establishing laudatory careers in the NFL as undrafted rookies.
The afternoon began in a lounge with blank walls, skeptical faces and an intense question and answer period. On a weekly basis, this is the setting for FLY's development sessions with incarcerated youth. FLY is a longtime beneficiary of the 49ers Foundation with a mission that coincides with the 49ers Foundation's to "Keep Kids Safe, on Track and in School." FLY is a non-profit dedicated to breaking the cycle of violence and crime for incarcerated youth through established programming, activities and counseling.
"This is a great opportunity for these kids to meet the 49ers players, learn from people they look up to and discuss their triggers and causes of stress, and how to deal with them in a positive way," said FLY San Mateo County Program Manager Alana Hawkins.
Once the 49ers players opened up to share their stories of struggles and perseverance, the residents of San Mateo Juvenile Hall began to relax and realize they were not alone. The change in their demeanor and the new look of hope in their eyes showed their reinforced belief– planted through conversations with the dedicated team at Juvenile Hall and the FLY program leaders – proving the mindset that they are capable of turning the page and writing a new chapter.
"People make mistakes, but you can see that these are good kids at heart," said safety Craig Dahl, "They are willing to listen to what we have to say about overcoming adversity and are ready to move on."
Following the question and answer session, Dahl and his teammates led the youth to the field in the Center's courtyard. Used primarily for physical education while youth are serving time in the detention center, the field had not hosted a game of catch since any members of the group had been incarcerated. Splitting into three teams, the youth sat down for a visioning activity with Dahl, Skuta and Wilhoite acting as captains. For the next thirty minutes, before anyone had the opportunity to touch a football, the teams discussed triggers, alternatives and goals. Every individual has triggers which set off emotions, but the key for this group of teens and pre-teens was to establish alternative coping mechanisms.
"There are times I get anxious and aggravated," expressed Wilhoite when asked how he copes with difficult situations, "I've learn to take a deep breath and count backwards until I can remove myself from the situation and think clearly."
With nods and firm understanding that using a clear state-of-mind as an alternative reaction to acts that could land them back in juvenile hall, the youth were ready to play football. The running back, tackling and quarterback drills allowed the San Mateo juveniles to extinguish anger and simply be kids again. As many remembered the familiar feeling of fun and freedom which ignites from sports, a sense of confidence, hope and youthful exuberance could be seen through the smiles on each of their faces with every catch, pass and bit of excitement deriving from friendly competition.
"These youth are all very open minded and have great ideas on how to handle stressful situations after completing FLY's exercises," reflected linebacker Dan Skuta, "We know they have the power to grow in a positive direction and become successful young adults."
The afternoon culminated with rounds of applause from the group. The focus towards a promising future painted the faces of the adolescents who just two hours prior sat with crossed arms and stared at the floor, disengaged. As Craig Dahl expressed hopes of seeing each of the youth again – but next time outside of the Center's gates - Wilhoite closed with words sure to leave a lasting impact.
"Never be too proud to listen." To learn more about FLY and the positive change they are making in the community, visit: http://www.freshlifelinesforyouth.com/