Akeem Stephenson wanted to go to jail. He believed it was the only way he could free himself from a life of crime — a life he desperately wanted to change.
After being arrested for a fourth time more than 10 years ago, for aggravated robbery, the teenager in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, was set to go to prison. But the judge saw something in Stephenson that suggested that he could redeem himself. So he gave Stephenson a choice: participate in an 18-month youth program, or serve the six-month sentence.
For Stephenson, the choice was clear. He decided to transform his life through the PACT Urban Peace Program.
PACT, which stands for Participation, Acknowledgement, Commitment, and Transformation, is a Toronto-based, award-winning charity supported by Rotary clubs in Canada. It works with at-risk young people and those who have committed crimes to change their direction in life. Entrepreneur and Toronto Rotary member David Lockett co-founded the program more than 20 years ago.
The intensive, step-by-step program aims to break the cycle of poverty and criminal behavior. Its goal is to determine what the participants need and develop strategies “to put them on a positive path in their life, so they can enrich not only their own lives, but their community,” says Lockett, a member of the Rotary E-Club of Social Innovators D7090.
Lockett says PACT builds peace in urban communities. “It’s all about looking at the impact of violence and criminal behavior, and understanding the dynamics of the problem, and creating highly effective solutions to make investments for at-risk youth at an early stage,” he says. “It’s really quite simple. If you want to help at-risk youth, you really have to understand the simple needs they have.”
He acknowledges that young people who commit crimes should be held accountable, and for many of them, that includes serving jail time. But for some, those he says come from “squalid and deplorable backgrounds” with very little parental guidance, PACT is a resource that can change their lives and reduce the likelihood that they will commit more crimes.
The organization works with the judicial system to identify repeat offenders ages 12-19 who may benefit from the program. After a young adult is convicted of a crime, the judge or judicial official refers them to PACT as part of a probation order.
Central to PACT’s success is its LifePlan Coaching program, an intense intervention system that pairs a participant with a certified life coach. The two meet each week for 12-18 months to set goals in six key areas: education, employment, health, relationships, contributing to the community, and staying out of the criminal justice system. Life coaching is a conversational process that provides structure and acknowledgement, builds capacity and self-awareness, and fosters self-directed learning and action. This ultimately helps the young person get from where they are to where they want to be in the future.
PACT’s LifePlan Coaching differs from the traditional model of therapy or counseling in that it does not focus on the person’s past but rather concentrates on the present and future, says Lockett. The innovative program boasts a 65 percent success rate, with success meaning that the young person completes the program without re-offending.
Judges in Canada see how the PACT program can reduce youth crime and help offenders stay out of the judicial system.
It was the relationship with his life coach that gave Stephenson the insight and confidence to reshape his future. “The PACT program will change your mindset,” he says. “They’ll give you the blueprint, but it’s up to you to run with it.”
Stephenson has since obtained his high school equivalency certificate and has been working at a call center. He also honed his passion for music through PACT’s Life & Job Skills Community Service Programs, in which participants learn through practical exposure to activities like music and film production, cooking, gardening, and entrepreneurship.
Rotary brings compassion
To date, nearly 30 clubs in the Toronto area have supported PACT, many with annual commitments of $3,600 or more to fund the program, according to Lockett.
But Rotary clubs are also playing a more in-depth role in PACT. The two organizations created the PACT/Rotary Youth Mentoring Program, which allows members to connect directly with participants.
Liz Bosma-Donovan, a social worker and member of the Rotary Club of Wellington in Ontario, is the first Rotary ambassador to PACT. She works with Rotary clubs to find members who are willing to become mentors.
“After learning about PACT and working with David [Lockett] on projects, I saw there was a missing opportunity for Rotary to create a more meaningful connection,” says Bosma-Donovan. “We want to enhance their sense of belonging, to make them feel more a part of the community. Rotary is uniquely positioned in the community to bring about these connections.”
For instance, members can help a PACT participant find volunteer opportunities, get a driver’s license, or secure job interviews.
PACT participants can hone their skills and passions through the program’s Life & Job Skills Community Service Programs, which gives them practical exposure to activities like music, film production, cooking, gardening, and entrepreneurship.
“Our members are caring and compassionate,” says Bosma-Donovan. “Those things are crucial to bring about change and to rebuild their lives.”
- 225 the number of young offenders PACT has coached since 2006
- 65% of youths coached did not re-offend
- $3,600 PACT’s cost to coach one youth offender
- $120,000 the average annual cost of keeping just one inmate in prison