04/07/2016 04:13 EDT | Updated 04/09/2017 05:12 EDT

Can Service Learning Put 'Delinquent' Kids On The Right Path?

Robert Ingelhart via Getty Images
Sad young man thinking

On any given day in Los Angeles there are more youth behind bars than in all of Canada. Lucas was one of them.

At 17, drinking and doing drugs, even hotwiring a car for a joyride, was nothing for Lucas. Last year, police caught him and some friends in a stolen vehicle. Even though Lucas (his name has been changed to protect his identity) was just a passenger, the prosecutor was prepared to put him away for at least four years. Lucas took a plea bargain and was sentenced to one year in California's Challenger Memorial Youth Center, a juvenile prison.

It's hard to match the image of wanton recklessness with the soft-spoken, thoughtful 18-year-old Lucas we talked to recently. He has transformed, thanks to a service learning program that's teaching young convicts -- including hardened gang members -- about global issues, social justice and community activism.

We knew service learning has an incredible impact for students in marginalized, low-income communities who are at higher risk for problems like addiction and criminal activity. When these students participate in our WE Schools programs are 1.5 times more likely to respect their teachers, 2.1 times more inclined to share opinions in class, and almost nine times as likely to launch a campaign to address a social issue they're passionate about, according to a survey of North American teachers, and current and former students, conducted by research firm Mission Measurement.

Initiatives in the U.S. and UK show service learning can create equally positive results for those in extreme circumstances like Lucas who society has given up on.

The Challenger Center's service learning program launched a year and a half ago. Educators realized young offenders lacked key social skills -- especially empathy. "We were looking for a way to engage them in something outside themselves," says Leslie Zoroya, lead educator at Challenger.

The change in attitude among the young inmates has been dramatic, Zoroya says. "They're so engaged; excited about learning in ways we've never seen before."

Inmates at Challenger learned about the child soldiers of Sierra Leone's brutal civil war. "I was stunned," Lucas says, describing how he discovered global problems he'd never had an inkling about. He tells us it was even more of an eye-opener for the incarcerated gang members, who could relate personally to the violence young soldiers experienced.

"The use of gang language and signs really dropped," Lucas recalls.

Inmates also took on advocacy projects. Challenger students created posters and flyers to raise awareness about child soldiers among youth at non-prison schools in L.A., and wrote letters to local politicians pushing them to take action.

Since then, the students have recorded audio letters sharing their life stories that will be shared at schools in low-income areas where youth are at risk of falling into gang life.

We hear similar positive anecdotes from teachers in the UK, where 20 specialized schools are using service learning for youth with discipline problems and learning difficulties. In one such school, Camden students are studying homelessness and putting together food packages for local people living on the street. At the end of the project, the students will create a guide so youth at other schools can take on this issue in their communities.

Back in L.A., Lucas was released from prison just a few weeks ago. Already he's volunteering as a mentor to other at-risk youth, helping out at a local seniors' home and ready to start college studies in psychology. He wants a career that will allow him to lift others up.

Stories like Lucas' show great promise for using service learning to help at-risk kids, and those who have already walked down a darker road, find purpose to achieve their full potential.

Brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger founded a platform for social change that includes the international charity, Free The Children, the social enterprise, Me to We, and the youth empowerment movement, We Day. Visit for more information.

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