Last month, I had the chance of a lifetime. I was invited to return to a place where I had spent five months of my life when I was a teenager; I was asked to speak at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (JTDC). I responded to the invitation as quickly as I possibly could. I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to be an inspiration to a girl who sits in a place where I once sat. It was forty-six years ago that I sat in JTDC, at the age of fourteen.
My stay there was unintended. I dreamed of being a dancer, finishing school, and I told myself I would never go to jail. However, I had no control over the zip code in which I lived. Growing up in the Ida B. Wells housing complex was tough, and each time I came home from jail or prison I had to go back to a community plagued by drugs, gangs and violence. I served my first prison sentence in Warrenville Correctional and continued to go in and out of jail and prison, recently coming home for the last time in 2012.
As we walked down the halls of the JTDC to get to our destination, I looked at the beautiful mosaic art and wondered if they were made by girls who were detained. There were a great deal of positive messages all around, and I couldn’t help but think to myself, what if every community promoted this type of inspiration? Our communities need resources, and a child should not have to go to jail or prison to get the help that he or she needs.
As we played games and interacted with the ladies it gave me a since of who they are. They are kids that have been separated from their sisters, brothers, mothers and hidden from the outside world. These are not bad girls. I enjoyed every minute of the games, especially the animal game. It is a memory game, and you have to make animal gestures or sounds, remembering the animals before you and the sounds that were made. It gave me some time to get out of my head and be a kid again.
We discussed attitude, and how our attitudes are an important part of our everyday lives. We talked about acceptance, change and courage. These are three principles that I have learned to live by. Accepting the things you cannot change, changing the things you can and having the wisdom to know the difference.
You can’t change people, but you can change you! The ladies shared, cried and talked about continuing their education. I let them know that being in JTDC does not mean it’s the end of the world, but you shouldn’t wait until you are my age to turn your life around.
Colette Payne is a community organizer at Cabrini Green Legal Aid, and a South Shore resident. She is a leader, student, mother and grandmother. Her passion is to educate families to build healthier communities.