LYNN — Straight Ahead Ministries, an organization that strives to transform the lives of juvenile offenders, may have closed the doors of its Lynn office, but it continues to work with youth in the city.
“We realized the work is much greater than just in Lynn, so we expanded out to Lawrence and then started to work with youth all across the county,” said Jason Ludwig, director of the institutional and community outreach for Straight Ahead Ministries. “So, we still have a major focus in Lynn. It’s just that our role is not just focused here.”
Straight Ahead Ministries was a staple on Munroe Street for 15 years, but staff members say the decision to close the Lynn office, or reentry center, was actually because the organization is expanding services.
Scott Larson, president and founder of Straight Ahead Ministries, said in a prior interview with The Item said there’s not nearly as many youth offenders transitioning back into Lynn with the Department of Youth Services, a state agency that operates the state’s justice services, as when the office opened.
But Ludwig said although the building wasn’t really much of a need anymore, the work continues, which includes helping youth offenders transition back into their communities.
Ludwig said he and Straight Ahead Ministries outreach workers, Hector Brito and Andrew Flattery bring a similar perspective to juvenile offenders they work with through the organization.
“Hector, Andrew and myself all come from the same background,” Ludwig said. “I grew up in the city myself. I’ve done nine and a half years (in lockup) myself and I know you’re not going to change unless you’re ready to change and so we want to work with the guys who want the change.”
Brito said they all know what prison and addiction is, adding that he was in lockup 11 to 12 years of his life. Flattery said he started drinking at 10, became an addict and alcoholic, and was homeless by 17. To support his addiction, he would rob people and houses. A minister came to talk to him about God while he was in prison and withdrawing from drugs and alcohol.
Now, Flattery said he gets to go into jails and give people hope the way the minister did for him. As a ministry, the organization’s mission is to see Jesus Christ transform the lives of juvenile offenders, according to its website.
One of those youth Straight Ahead has worked with is 19-year-old Lynn resident Yancy Quinonez. Ludwig said the organization started working with Quinonez while he was incarcerated about two years ago.
Quinonez was incarcerated after a 2016 charge for armed robbery, which was later lowered to assault and battery. Before the charge was lowered, he said there were some pretty big numbers being discussed, in terms of incarceration.
But he ended up being hit with a two and a half year suspended sentence. If the person does not violate probation during that time period, the sentence is usually dismissed. But if Quinonez were to violate his probation, he would have to serve the sentence.
Quinonez said he spent about three and a half months, or 112 days, in jail at the Middleton House of Corrections while he was waiting for trial. He got out and violated probation for smoking weed and went back for about a month and a half.
Quinonez said that time period was really hard for him — he was living in Peabody and because of the felony charge, he wasn’t allowed to go back to school. He was an A, B student so that was tough. He was detached from his family a lot at the time and remembers not feeling like himself — his friends said he had changed.
“I didn’t realize it until I was incarcerated, until I was thinking about my decisions, until (I was) thinking about where I was at in life,” he said. “That was when I realized that my life wasn’t where I wanted it to be, so I had to put it where I wanted it to be.”
Quinonez said the time period was also scary and recalls the uncertainty of not knowing what was going to happen to him. He remembers talking to his family and decided to use the time to improve himself as a person.
It was a chance encounter that led him to meet Ludwig and Brito when he was in pretrial lockup. Quinonez said a teacher from his GED class asked him to get a remote from across the hall and he ended up being stopped by Ludwig, who asked him how old he was. He told him he had just turned 18, and Ludwig asked him if he knew Brito, whom he ended up talking to in Spanish.
“I was like, I need help,” Quinonez said. “I need to change my ways, what I’m doing.”
Quinonez ended up taking classes with Straight Ahead — every Friday, the organization does reentry groups in Middleton, Ludwig said. Quinonez remembers going and hearing what he needed to hear and getting the advice he needed.
Now, Quinonez said it’s been a year and a half — it was hard, but he’s drug-free, which includes no smoking, no drinking, and he’s got his GED. He’s working, has a car and his license. He plans to attend North Shore Community College next fall for two years, before transferring to a four-year university, but isn’t sure what he’s going to study. He said Straight Ahead opened some doors for him and they advocated for him.
“Nothing at all changed until I said I wanted to change what I wanted to do and accept the help that was coming in,” Quinonez said. “I think it (Straight Ahead) held its role. It was a piece of the wheel. A lot’s just up to you whether you want to change or not and that’s the realest thing anybody can say.”
In the classes, Ludwig said they go in and meet the youth. He said they start to talk about their future, what their plans are for when they get out of jail and then the outreach workers put together service plans and goals they can stay committed to when they get out. He said they help the youth get connected to resources in jail and also provide court advocacy.
If wanted, Ludwig said Straight Ahead also continues to work with youth on re-entry after they get out of jail, which includes working with their collaborative partners throughout the city and county. A lot of it is character development, Ludwig said, as youth can be put in job placement, but a job isn’t going to change their life. There are issues that need to be worked out in individuals, such as hurt, pain or trauma from their past.
“It’s really just trying to get them to see a different future than what they’ve had and walk alongside them so they can experience that rather than just pumping them full of information,” Ludwig said. “The bottom line is we’ll gather resources, but we’re not going to change anybody.
“The change comes from within each individual and Yancy’s really demonstrated that. The goal is really to get them to a place where they can look in the mirror and say, you know what, some organization may have helped, but I did all the hard work, and that’s where Yancy’s at right now with the decisions he’s made.”