"I was first introduced to the juvenile justice system when I was 14 years old," shares Sammy Perez in this week's Insider.
Growing up, Sammy had a difficult childhood. His father was absent, and his mother suffered from multiple mental illnesses. Because of this, he moved from home to home.
"Eventually [I] ended up on the streets," he says, "where I learned a lot of my principles and morals and values."
In the sixth grade, Sammy brought a knife to school. Although he did not have any prior records of bad behavior, he was expelled. Looking back, he believes that this moment was when his life began to go downhill.
Instead of being offered help, Sammy was sent to an alternative school where the students were more interested in drugs than in books. Because his mother was unable to care for him, he was sent to various group homes. Sammy began running away … and stealing cars.
After multiple arrests for grand larceny, Sammy found himself at a juvenile correctional center.
JUVENILE JUSTICE SYSTEM: GLADIATOR SCHOOL
To Sammy, the juvenile correctional center didn't look much different from the prisons he had seen on TV. He and the other prisoners referred to the center as "gladiator school" because behind its walls they were not rehabilitated. Instead, they were exposed to violence and learned how to survive in the hostile environment.
Sammy's time behind bars continued into adulthood because he kept getting into trouble. At 19, he found himself sitting in an isolation cell. With no other distractions, Sammy was finally able to examine who he was and how he was living his life.
"This was not the life I wanted to live," he says.
The life he wanted, Sammy decided, was one that followed Jesus Christ.
A CHAMPION FOR CHRIST
Today, Sammy is 31 years old. He's married now, and his wife Crystal is expecting a baby. He's also a graduate of Liberty University, and plans on continuing his education by pursuing a master's degree in counseling.
"Things haven't been perfect," Sammy shares, "but they've been going well."
Sammy's new life is one that he wants to see offered to others. "A part of raising champions for Christ is to think outside the bars," he explains.
HOW TO RAISE CHAMPIONS
If Sammy could go back in time and talk to the leaders and administrators who sent him to the juvenile justice system, he would suggest they do things differently. Sammy was punished for his behavior, but he was not instructed on how to live better. Nor did anyone ask why Sammy got into trouble.
"Instead of expulsion," he says, "I really wish I would have been able to receive other types of help, such as family counseling or a one-on-one mentor. These things would have helped me deal with the root cause of my problems."