It started out as an idea in the minds of incarcerated boys 13 years ago. But Christa Gannon turned a fly-speck of a program into a $3.7 million nonprofit powerhouse that has helped thousands of at-risk kids stay out of jail and get onto a good life track.
"I wanted to be a criminal lawyer. I thought I wanted to be a district attorney and a criminal judge. For me, part of the reason I wanted to be a DA was that I wanted to help make the world a safer place. If you said to me that I would be working with people who had already been incarcerated, I would have said, 'That's crazy,'" she said by phone this week.
But Gannon saw that her incarcerated students were more than their criminal records.
"I realized these were just kids under the thick veneer. ... Some of them were looking at spending many, many years behind bars. It seemed like such a tragedy," she said.
Many of the youth did not have positive role models. Most grow up believing that by the time they turn 18 they will be in jail or dead, she said.
So Gannon asked the inmates to help design services to prevent juvenile crime. Today FLY offers legal education (so teens understand the law and consequences of crime), leadership training and one-on-one mentoring by role models to youths on probation.
When FLY began, it had one staff member, five volunteers, 25 clients in East San Jose and a budget of $32,500. But now it annually serves 2,000 teen boys and girls in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties for one-tenth the cost of incarceration, according to the organization. Each year, 1,000 kids ages 15 to 18 who have been in trouble and 1,000 at-risk middle school students receive services. FLY now has a staff of 37 and 150 volunteers in offices in Redwood City and Milpitas.
Gannon has seen young people take up the challenge thousands of times. They graduate from high school and attend college or get training in mechanics. Whatever their path, it is one that leads away from the revolving jailhouse door.
"The most important thing is that young people see they are so much more than their past mistakes," she said.
The number of jail-bound and incarcerated youth is significant. In Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, 12,000 kids are cited for a juvenile offense each year; more than 6,250 are on active probation. The two counties spend $68 million annually for juvenile incarceration, according to the organization.
A study of local incarcerated youth found that 83 percent have no basic life skills to resist peer pressure; 78 percent experienced significant trauma and 91 percent have no positive role models, Gannon noted.
But last year 75 percent of youth in the FLY leadership program did not commit a new crime and 85 percent enrolled in school. Seventy-seven percent of eligible high school seniors graduated or received a GED.
Gannon encounters the positive fruits of her labor wherever she goes. At a recent fundraising event in San Jose, the building's security person was a former client; then the sous chef came out of the kitchen to say she had graduated from the program in 2009. Prior to her experience with FLY, the chef had spent years in incarceration, Gannon said.
"I thought, 'Oh my gosh there's a beautiful example of our organization,'" she said.
The Angel Award event, of which the Palo Alto Weekly is a sponsor, will raise funds for Kiwanis International's Eliminate Project, which partners with UNICEF to eliminate tetanus, a disease that kills mothers and 60,000 newborns annually in the world's poorest regions. Locally, Kiwanis Club of Palo Alto raises funds and provides volunteers for a variety of community events.
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