by Jedd Hafer (based on true events)
The Power of Restitution
Dominic was in our program for almost a year. Teens in trouble, sent by the courts to turn their lives around.
He had huge eyes and a smile that affected you. It made you smile back while wondering if you should trust it. We are not supposed to have favorites, but he was definitely one of mine.
I had the privilege of driving Dominic to court many times as part of my job. If there was a petty crime on the street to be committed, Dominic had tried it at least once.
His neighborhood was actually pretty close to the courthouse. If he was having a good day, and he usually was, I would take a different route by his neighborhood and listen to his stories.
At home, he had often been left with the task of taking care of his little sister Dee. I learned that their mother was gone a lot. “Not because she was working,” Dominic looked down as he told me. “She was partying or doing whatever she wanted.”
With no money or food in the house, Dominic stole to feed his sister and himself. Often. You could tell he didn’t feel great about it, especially as he gained more skills in the program and his self-concept changed. He was becoming a new creation.
“See that house? Ha. We used to jack apples from that dude.” His face and tone turned more serious.
I started to make a dumb joke about Apple Jacks being my favorite cereal but I stopped myself and listened. Sometimes, kids really like it when you listen.
“I feel bad because he was a nice old man. He’d be on his porch and wave at us. Not creepy, just real friendly. Then we would go around to the back and lean over the fence and take a bunch of apples from his tree. We did it all the time. They were sour as …” he stopped himself from cussing, then, I assume, tried to think of something really sour and finally gave up.
Dominic progressed to the highest level of our program. At the final level, there was great emphasis on RESTITUTION and INTEGRITY. We challenged the youth to think about their futures – not just what you want to do, but what kind of person do you want to be?
The day arrived to drive Dominic to court to make a final positive report to his judge and caseworker. He made the judge smile - and this judge never smiled. After the joyous court proceeding (we didn’t get enough of those), I planned to take my young friend for tacos.
But first, he had a request.
We pulled up to the ‘apple house’ and I asked Dom if he wanted me to come stand with him, like I did at court. We agreed that it shouldn’t look like I was MAKING him do what he was about to do, so I stayed in the car. I rolled down the window, straining to hear as much of this moment as I could.
The young man took a couple breaths like I heard him do when lifting weights just before knocking on the weathered front door.
A kindly-looking older gentleman came out onto the porch and greeted my “troubled” teen. I later learned that his name was Ernest and he had lived in the neighborhood for over 40 years.
“Sir, I need to tell you something. I need to take responsibility.”
That was one of our key phrases we were famous for overusing - ‘Take responsibility!’
Dominic explained who he was as he handed the old man an apology letter he had carefully hand-written, some folded dollar bills saved from his program allowance and a little plaque with a Bible verse he made in art class.
Ernest quickly understood and took the letter and the plaque but just as quickly handed back the money.
I heard him tell the kid that he should have knocked on the door and he would’ve given him something better to eat than those apples. Ernest was Grace personified. I couldn’t have hired an actor to have a better impact on the moment.
He firmly grabbed Dominic‘s right hand. The kid’s hand was ashy-brown with homemade tattoos on the knuckles (the tats were fading because Dominic was getting them laser-removed through the program). Ernest held on to that hand an extra long time. Not creepy, just real friendly.
I noticed that Dominic was smiling and looking the ‘victim’ of his fruit larceny directly in the eye. He nodded his head without unlocking those giant eyes of his. And I noted that the young man appeared to have grown a foot taller as he jogged effortlessly back to the car. His feet seemed to barely touch the ground.
“That was cool.” He breathed excitedly. “Thank you for taking me.”
He allowed himself to smile even bigger and I could tell his heart was still beating fast.
“That’s a smooth old man.”
“As smooth as me?”
I asked, barely taking eyes off the road.
“Ha! No, but almost as OLD. Ha!”
Yes, Dominic actually said “Ha” -it was his trademark.
“You think you’ll remember this day?” I asked.
He resisted rolling his eyes at the ridiculous question. “Always. Ha. Definitely!”
I wonder if he ever knew how hard it was for me to keep from bawling like a baby all the way to the taco place.
Thanks for reading!
Also, to hear more stories and skills for working with tougher kids, check out Love and Logic in Tough Situations.