“You make a living by what you get, but you make a life by what you give.”
- Winston Churchill
Through the echoes of the famed British Prime Minister’s words, the Baltimore City Teen Court has thrived the past eight years in not only getting the city’s troubled youth off the streets, but also refocusing the teenager’s endeavors on helping their peers escape the same pitfalls. Billed as “organized chaos” by organizer Citizenship Law-Related Education Program (CLREP), 30 to 40 of the city’s 11-17 year olds convene on the Eastside District Courthouse on North Avenue at 4:00 p.m. every other Thursday; pizza, justice and a second chance are served to adolescents charged with misdemeanors or other minor offenses.
Functioning as an educational outlet, Teen Court engages volunteer teenagers in the court procedure as the jury, clerk, prosecution, bailiff or defense. Guided by attorney and judicial adult volunteers, the young volunteers preside over their peers, who have pled guilty to their infraction. Thereupon, the jury imparts various sanctions on the troubled youth, including volunteer hours with the Teen Court, peer mediation, community service, anger management, apology letters and regular school attendance.
“We try to empower the kids with confidence,” says Leslie A. Wright, Community Outreach Coordinator of CLREP, “and taking responsibility for their actions.”
An old adage states: actions speak louder than words. In the early morning of May 31, 2007, a veteran Teen Court volunteer’s action spoke volumes about her character and the program she holds so dearly.
The day began like any other for the then-15-year-old Anjanise Burton, who was enjoying the waning days of her sophomore year at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute. As she completed her usual morning-trek to the corner of Glenmore Avenue and Belair Road (in the Belgravia area of Northeast Baltimore City) to catch the bus for school, a car blind-sided her. The 7:00 a.m. morning-commute traffic stopped in all directions, as numerous concerned motorists came to the aid of the young, injured girl.
Burton was quickly whisked away by ambulance to the Emergency Room at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Though she was badly bruised and cut, doctors determined there was no head trauma or other damage except to her right leg, for which she had to undergo emergency surgery. Awaiting her scheduled surgery at 4:00 p.m., Burton laid in the ER that fateful morning and called the most important people in her life to let them know she was okay: her family and Teen Court, which was scheduled to meet that evening. Her family rushed to her bedside, and Wright soon followed to support her dedicated volunteer.
“This is my second home,” Burton said of Teen Court, whose participants all sent their condolences and kept in touch during her hospital stay. “I knew people would be wondering where I was if I didn’t come [to the meeting]. I really wanted to go.”
Following the successful surgery, Burton recuperated in the hospital and was released on June 4. Donning a splint on her right leg for the next three days and eventually using a crutch in some instances, the teenager was forced to sit out of her cherished hands-on legal education for a few weeks.
An avid Teen Court participant for the last five years, Burton was brought to the program by a friend who misled her into thinking it was a paying gig; half-a-decade later, Burton has been a staple at the bi-weekly meetings and the CLREP offices, while her friend - and the thought of monetary compensation - have long-since departed.
“I don’t want to see this program fail,” admits Burton, “so I do everything I can to help this staff.”
Burton’s absence was as equally difficult for the Teen Court program as it was for her. From July 2006 through June 2007, volunteers averaged approximately 65 hours of service, whereas Burton herself produced 134 service hours. Numbers aside, Burton assisted the program in many other ways. Frequently, she developed camaraderie with the Respondents (teenagers who stood trial in Teen Court and then served with the program as apart of the sentence) to instill a bond and encourage them to return after completing their required service. With Burton on the sidelines, the program lost a valuable asset.
Adorned with a silver Guardian Bracelet on her right wrist from the motorist who called the ambulance after she had been hit, Burton slowly ventured back to normalcy. On June 20, the Annual Volunteer Recognition Ceremony for Teen Court was held at the University of Maryland-Baltimore Student Center. Traditionally, Burton has been involved in the preparation and this year proved to be no different, especially since this ceremony marked her return to Teen Court.
An event usually reserved to “recognize time and effort not only the kids put in, but also the adults,” according to Baltimore City District Court Judge Jamey H. Weitzman, had taken on a new dynamic as countless participants flocked to Burton at the outset of the presentation. With her gray crutch standing idly a few-feet away, the invigorated teenager fielded questions, embraced friends and relished in laughs and smiles amongst her second family. The “surprised” teen later stood (unabated) and accepted the Youth Volunteer of the Year award.
“You are all apart of a much bigger initiative than you realize,” CLREP Executive Director Ellery “Rick” Miller, Jr., told the crowd. “This program truly has a significant and lasting impact.”
Baltimore City Teen Court is always looking for more Judicial and Attorney adult volunteers. If you are interested, please contact Leslie A. Wright at (410) 706-5363 or firstname.lastname@example.org .