Alumni Spotlight

Penelope Spain '05 & Whitney Louchheim '05: Mentoring Today

by, Betty Lynne Leary

“I dreamed I was a resident of a juvenile facility. I wanted to touch, to feel, to experience things. I knew the world would be so intriguing and exciting if only I could touch it. But there was nothing. Only cold, flat walls and open space. I awoke, gasping and sobbing, the vivid images from my first trip to Oak HillYouth Center still churning in my mind.The shiny razor wire and heavy metal doors.The graffiti-covered, concrete walls. And the kids with soft faces and frightened eyes. As I peered into my dimly lit studio apartment, the richness and humanity of it was overwhelming. I pondered the new passion that invaded me.That night I decided to dedicate my legal career to the youth who had the courage to show me their pain on that day.”

Armed with a fresh degree in Latin American studies from the University of Chicago, Penelope Spain ’05 planned some time off before continuing her studies. She traveled to Venezuela teaching literacy splitting her time between a border town and a jungle community that was a three-hour walk from the nearest road. After witnessing firsthand the struggles of the impoverished communities, Spain decided to pursue a career in international human rights.

“I was ready to go to law school,” Spain says, “and I loved everything about it. I realized what a luxury school is. You get inside your own head and improve your mind. I loved the respectful debate and looking at every issue from a variety of perspectives.” And while in D.C., Spain sought to work locally, perhaps in the juvenile justice system, because “juvenile justice is not too far from human rights.”

The first day of her first law school internship changed Spain’s life. She toured the Oak Hill Youth Center, the District’s secure facility in Laurel, Maryland for youth who have been adjudicated delinquent and committed to the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services. The tour included meeting some of the residents, learning about their pasts, their charges and their needs.

“I knew then that I would take an alternative approach to law school,” Spain explains. “It was hard not getting caught up in the more mainstream activities like moot court and the journals, but I believed my choices would support me on the path I had chosen.”

Spain found an ally in Whitney Louchheim ’05 who had a chance meeting with Spain during orientation. The two formed an immediate bond and began brainstorming ways to fill needs in the juvenile justice system. They formed Students United, a tutoring and mentoring organization serving the residents of Oak Hill.

“We went to Oak Hill every Friday night for two years, and over that course of time, had about 40 students participating with us,” Louchheim says. “It became clear to me, walking the halls there, that this was what I wanted to do. I knew I could make a difference for the youth in the D.C. juvenile justice system.”

As they began plotting their post-law school careers, Louchheim and Spain constantly brainstormed ideas. They researched other communities and other countries, and talked for endless hours about what gap they could fill. Early in their second year, the idea for Mentoring Today slowly took shape. The critical element of the plan was not only to mentor kids inside Oak Hill but also to follow and support them during their re-entry to the community.

“We saw amazing success with Students United,” says Louchheim. “For a kid to have an advocate on the inside of Oak Hill and to know that person would still be their mentor once they were released was key.” The nonprofit organization, Mentoring Today, grew out of Students United. With Spain serving as chief executive and Louchheim as chief operating officer, the organization serves the most at-risk group at Oak Hill, boys ages 16 to 18 who have lengthy arrest records.

“Our program is strictly voluntary,” Louchheim explains. “Most of our kids have been to Oak Hill more than once and are most likely to go to jail as an adult the next time.” Boys are paired with a mentor who commits to one year of service to the organization. “The boys are so amazing, just fun to be around,” Spain says. “I get out of bed with a fighting spirit each day. I want to fight for them because so few people are struggling along with them.” She adds that each boy has a different starting point therefore there are different levels of success in their re-entries.

Spain describes one boy she met who, at 17 years of age, didn't know the alphabet. She took charge and taught him to read. “He’s now serving time on a minor charge and he writes me letters,” she says. “This is a huge success for him to be able to communicate, to discuss court papers that he receives and can now read.”

Another young man touched the hearts of both Spain and Louchheim when he committed to graduating from high school upon his release. He would wake at 5 a.m. each day and take two buses and a train to get to school. On graduation day, he stood before his classmates as salutatorian with aspirations for college.

“He came with us to Oak Hill recently to talk with a new group of boys that had signed up for Mentoring Today,” says Spain. “He presented himself with such pride and confidence, I realized at that moment just how far he’d come in 18 months. These little kids can grow and change so much in such a short time. I was just overwhelmed hearing him speak.”

It served as confirmation that Spain and Louchheim’s alternate path was a path well-chosen.

“It makes us feel valuable,” Spain says. “Our work is personally challenging and rewarding, and I am 100 percent happy. What we do makes so much sense. The people who really know this complicated system, the public defenders and the social workers, all say yes, this is exactly what we need.”

For more information about Mentoring Today, visit www.mentoringtoday.org.