Teens on Probation Get New Start with Running Program

“It was a pure, pure accident … When it happened, it scared me, and it shocked me,” Humphries said. “I didn’t think guns worked so fast; I was just playing with it like it was a toy, next thing I knew, it just went off.”

Dealing with reality can be difficult for youthful offenders once they’ve been released on probation, but a running club created in March by Francisco Arenas, a probation officer supervisor and grants coordinator for the Cook County Juvenile Probation Department, could help them avoid returning to the system. Organizers say Run4Change is the first program in the country to integrate physical activity, cognitive behavioral therapy and interactive peace circles, where participants share their highs and lows. Humphries was referred to the pilot program a couple of months after he was released from the detention center.

“The runs really have helped me work through and cope with everything that I’ve been going through,” Humphries said. “I should be doing life right now, but they gave me a second chance at life, so I’m using that chance to do way better than what I’ve done. I’m thankful for what they have done for me and for my fellow peers, most people would just give up on us.”

Arenas has worked for the Juvenile Probation Department for 25 years and has run more than 10 marathons. He said he used to run 5Ks with co-workers to stay in shape and blow off steam, which led him to wonder whether juveniles might also benefit. The program is designed to teach minors coping skills when faced with trauma and to ultimately reduce the chance of them committing another crime.

According to Arenas, 100 percent of kids ending up in the justice system have experienced some sort of trauma — they just don’t know how to cope with it.

He said trauma doesn’t always come from something as damaging as sexual, physical or mental abuse. He said it can stem from parents divorcing or growing up poor.

Arenas said the common denominator among most minors who go through the justice system is abandonment, and that binds them.

“Society seems to write off the kids who are on probation instead of asking how can we as a community address this kid’s trauma and heal this kid,” he said. “Most of the time nobody wants to touch those kids … Even though a lot of these kids are very salvageable.”

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