"I was first introduced to the juvenile justice system when I was 14 years old," Sammy Perez shares with Prison Fellowship®’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. Sammy was punished for his behavior, but he was not instructed on how to live better. Nor did anyone ask why Sammy was getting 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."
But 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.
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 a champion for Christ. He's a graduate of Liberty University and has started pursuing a master's degree in professional counseling. "I hope to one day become a licensed substance abuse counselor in Virginia," he says. Sammy has also married, and he and his wife Crystal are expecting twins.
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. Sammy was hired at the Joe Gibbs Youth for Tomorrow residential treatment center, where he has the opportunity to pour into at-risk adolescents on a daily basis.
He's also caught the attention of Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe, who just recently appointed Sammy to serve on the Advisory Committee for Juvenile Justice and Prevention. "This opportunity allows me to be a voice for justice reform," he says.
At the same time, Sammy hopes to launch a church ministry at his local church that will serve men and women reentering society after incarceration.
This article was updated October 2017.