Program aims to make troubled youth productive members of society

CHICAGO (FOX 32 News) - Nigel Lee, 16, has had several friends die violent deaths on the streets of Chicago, with most of them dying before the age of 20.

But there is hope for Lee. He’s been selected as one of 9 troubled youth in the United States to participate in a very unique program.

It’s a program that believes incarceration is not the answer, and their solution involves a sail boat, the open ocean and a race.

"We want them connected to society. To know people care about them. That they are not evil," said Mark Hunter.

Hunter is the co-founder of Florida based ‘Sail For Justice,’ which is a program that takes at-risk youths and teaches them how to sail.

"We use sail boats as an alternative to incarceration,” Hunter said. "Everyone on board is a productive member of the team."

And Hunter said that teamwork is a critical component to changing the way the offenders often view themselves.

"People start thinking that I’m a bad person, and nobody cares about me. We want to do the opposite," Hunter said.

A success in Florida, Hunter said the program has helped hundreds turn their lives around. He said it’s also evidence that jail for youth offenders is not always the answer.

"To make sure we can prove that juvenile offenders are capable of change, and by working together we can find a solution to this persistent and expensive problem," Hunter said.

This is first time 'Sail For Justice' has expanded beyond the sunshine state.

Lee is one of the 9 at-risk youths chosen to participate. He’s only 16 years old and has been locked up 8 times for burglary, grand theft auto and retail theft.

After his last arrest, Lee met Father Kelly. That’s where his life started to change.

"Father Kelly really got me on my feet, he got me going to school and staying out of trouble," Lee said.

When 'Sail For Justice' contacted Father Kelly looking for possible candidates, he nominated Lee, who wasn't sure it was legit.

"At first I thought it was a scam," Lee said.

And when Hunter visited Lee’s home, he still couldn't believe it.

"All the way over there in Spain? No, this couldn't be happening," Lee said.

But it's happening. Later this week, Lee will travel to Baltimore, meet his teammates, and train for a month, before ultimately setting sail.

"November 22nd, we launch from the Canary Islands and the World Atlantic Rally, with the finish line in the Caribbean at St. Lucia," Hunter said.

Win or lose, the real work for Lee begins when he gets back, in his words, a changed man.

"I'm representing all juveniles to show that they can do more than what people say they can do," Lee said.

"A big piece of this is to see how strong they are, how resilient they are to do something they never dreamt they could do," Hunter said.

Hunter said the program aims to make sure participants return as productive members of society.

'Sail For Justice' also assists with job placement, and all of this is privately funded, made possible by donations.

Hunter also said the program is still less expensive than the cost of incarcerating just one juvenile offender for 12 months.

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