WAGRAM — A project to reinvent the former Scotland Correctional Center and create a haven for troubled teens came to the attention of a group of N.C. State University students exploring leadership and the issue of at-risk youth this weekend.
Freshmen in the university’s Park Scholar program, who conduct a self-guided foray into an issue facing North Carolina, discovered GrowingChange.org in a Google search as they identified groundbreaking programs addressing at-risk youth in the state’s eastern region.
That search brought 45 students to Scotland County on Saturday to meet with Growing Change founder Noran Sanford and a group of youth who have been involved with the program.
“It’s all about leadership and looking at leadership through the lens of an issue that’s facing North Carolina, and so we chose the issue of at-risk youth and criminal justice,” said N.C. State student Keilah Davis, a physics major from Durham.
The group came to Scotland County after meeting with the deputy commissioner of juvenile justice at the N.C. Department of Public Safety, the Pitt County Arts Council, and Leading Into New Communities, Inc. in Wilmington.
“We’ve talked to a variety of different people, and that was really the goal: to get good background information and talk to people from different areas like government and nonprofits to see what they’re doing and how they’re addressing the issue,” Davis said.
“I think it’s really valuable to hear from leaders about how they use their passion to make a difference in their community or how they use limited resources to accomplish their goals.”
Sanford conceived Growing Change in 2011 as a clinical social worker working with young people in Scotland and neighboring counties facing homelessness, expulsion from school, or criminal charges. Many of them were under the age of 14.
“We call it the unholy trinity, when you have those risk factors across a landscape of poverty, that’s where you see the highest rates of entry into the adult correctional system,” he said. “So for us, this is an intervention program; this is not a prevention program.”
On Saturday, Sanford detailed the project’s response to the state’s economy and demographics, providing in a single model a method to rehabilitate at-risk youth and to make use of an outdated prison facility like dozens of others in North Carolina.
“I was that kid who didn’t fit in with the ‘suburban’ kids,” said Terrence Smith, a Growing Change veteran, of his experience in his middle school’s program for academically gifted students.
“I did everything in my power to get kicked out: I didn’t do my work, they wouldn’t kick me out. I tried to skip class — you can’t skip class in middle school, but I was trying.”
Facing expulsion from school, Smith initially eyed Sanford and his “prison flip” pitch with skepticism.
“Whenever we first started walking through the prison, it was kind of like a big playground,” he said. “It became cool, and now we’ve actually been working on it for four years and we have a good buzz behind us. We have a lot of people that support us, and universities, and it’s just a great experience and opportunity.”
Growing Change ultimately aims to convert the closed prison into a center where youth can immerse themselves in sustainable farming and the arts as part of a therapeutic approach linking cognitive behavioral therapy, service learning, and entrepreneurship.
“We need to give our youth the opportunity and the tools to see themselves differently,” said Sanford. “Because they’re not coming out of a privileged situation with the right support groups, they can often have damaging or negative scripts about themselves and their opportunities.”
Sanford also challenged the N.C. State students to consider the implications of the state’s incarceration rates and parallels between its labor needs.
“Rural America was sold prisons as a form of economic development, but now these closed sites are falling into disuse,” he said.
“This is a place where we create a model, and then we send out a reclamation theme to our neighbors, whether they’re in Robeson County or whether they’re in Edgecombe County, or whether they’re in Goldsboro, where these other prisons are, to raise up a leadership team in those counties to flip their prisons in their communities.”
Mary Katherine Murphy can be reached at 910-506-3169.