NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — Teenagers in trouble with the law are being given a chance to turn their lives around, thanks to a nonprofit dedicated to transforming the lives of court-involved youth.
“I was going through not the best time in my life,” Sunset Park, Brooklyn resident Rafael Soto told CBS2’s Jenna DeAngelis on Wednesday.READ MORE: Federal Arrest Warrant Issued For Gabby Petito's Missing Fiancé Brian Laundrie
About two years ago, Soto was on the wrong path, incarcerated and at a crossroads.
“I had two choices, was either keep messing up or try to do something different. So when I got referred to Exalt I, of course, took the chance,” Soto said.
It’s a chance that he said changed his life.
Exalt is a nonprofit that so many other court-involved New York City teens have been referred to by judges, district attorneys, and even schools.
“A young person who is jail-bound at the point of entry, and at the point they complete our organization, they have a brand new trajectory,” Exalt executive director Gisele Castro said.
It’s a voluntary program preparing vulnerable youth for the workforce.
Students spend six weeks in the classroom learning about mass incarceration, the school-to-prison pipeline, and more before taking the next step in the program, a two-month paid internship of their choice, from architecture, to business, tech, and more.READ MORE: 'I Can't Take This Anymore': Heavy Rain In Tri-State Area Renews Flooding Concerns For Many Still Dealing With Damage From Ida
More than 2,000 teens have graduated from the program since 2006, including 200 virtually during the pandemic.
“A young person who is incarcerated, they have a 40% chance of returning into the system. Well, 95% of our young people do not,’ Castro said.
There have been so many success stories, like a young woman who came in with a serious felony charge and facing five years in jail.
“The judge and the district attorney were so impressed that this young woman had the power to turn her life around in those ways, to get her high school diploma, to go on to CUNY, we were able to avoid jail time in her case,” Exalt deputy director Brian Lewis said.
Lewis is passionate about the program because he sees himself in these kids.
“I encountered a youth program very much like Exalt that changed my life,” Lewis said.
And now, he’s helping change lives.
“Exalt made me the person I am today,” Soto said.MORE NEWS: 1 Killed, 13 Injured In Shooting At Kroger In Collierville, Tennessee
By empowering teens to elevate their expectations for their futures.