Author’s Note

Periodically I’ll respond positively to my friends request to come to the North Central Secure Treatment Unit, to participate in their “Interviewing” program as a “favor” to him.

Below are my Facebook posts from the years I’ve done this “favor” for my friend.

Sometimes, I feel bad participating; but not for the reasons you might think. Sometimes I feel bad because I think I might get more out of this “favor” than the kids.

Hope you enjoy/learn/get pissed off by these comments. Anything that motivates would be a win. There is so much potential in these kids, and I fear it’s mostly going to go to waste.


Update 1/30

This is my third time doing these interviews. I’m now one of the “senior members” of the volunteers. I act nonchalant as I half heartedly review the handout documents. I breeze over the rules of engagement. I’m a veteran at this now. War horse. Listening to directions is for those green folks who are new to the rodeo. Those folks who still have that slightly wild look in their eye…because they don’t know what to expect.

And that look is appropriate. This is a high security unit. Yes, these kids are young, but look at crime statistics, and you might be shocked at how many gruesome, violent crimes are done my folks around 15 years old. The look of tentativeness in some of these Interviewers is appropriate. If one of these kids “lost it”, it’s possible that it could take a few moments to get help. You are in a room, one-on-one, and when seconds count…help is only minutes away. I find it’s best to always keep that thought where it can be easily reached during the interviews.

This visit went much like my first two: with one exception. (You can read below to get the details of the previous two visits. I won’t rehash that here.)

The exception is that these kids are now looking familiar to me. I’ve seen the same kids a few times now. A kid who was 13 when we first met is now 15 (soon to be 16) and starting to think about actually getting out. I think the thought of getting out is actually more frightening to them than the idea of staying in. “Out” is where all the bad stuff happened.

The last time I saw strangers kids growing up in one year increments, was when I used to sell Christmas trees on the street corners. Happy kids and parents laughing in the cold weather, as they decided on the perfect tree. I used to enjoy that experience. Wonder if any of these boys had ever gone to a street corner with their parents to buy a Christmas tree? Wonder if the Christmas tree sales guy has been wondering where they’ve been lately?

Some of these kids don’t remember “out” very well anymore. We talk about their daily life as part of the interview. Their daily life does not resemble in any way the life of a “normal” 14 year old. They are regimented all day, every day. No music. Limited TV. Yes, there is school, but it’s a school that includes maintaining a persona that demands respect from your school inmates. Respect, even if that persona might work against your larger “real world” goals. Young men, giving one word answers and acting tough. Great for “inside”: not so great in the fast approaching “outside” world of gainful employment based in skills and “likability”.

One of the first kids I interview today looks familiar. He confirms my suspicion with his first answers. This kid is trying so hard to be “gangsta” that he answers questions with the one word “yeeah”, said with his head cocked, and in a way that comes from his throat, so it sounds more like “Gia”. I remember that from last time. I thought it was dopey then, and he’s confirming, it’s still dopey now. What makes matters worse is that he’s one of the few white kids, so it seems even dopier. I feel bad for this kid. He’s small, and he’s trying too hard. I imagine he gets beat up a lot.

Next up, a pretty pleasant new kid, with a nice word tattoo under his right eye. He’s from north Philly, and we run that down a bit. He has a little experience…but mostly with cutting grass for his dad. Nice enough kid. Probably could do the job. Most employers will likely dismiss him immediately between the juvenile corrections record and the face tattoo. Next.

At that point, the guy running the program walks in my room and tells me who is coming up next. He also informs me that my interviews have been cut from five to four, because my fifth kid just did something out in the staging area to get himself booted from the program. The Instructor never tells me exactly what he did, but he does tell me, “Sometimes these kids will do stuff like this when they get nervous. They will self sabotage to get out of things they are afraid of, or that are unpleasant for them.” The Instructor goes on to tell me, “He interviewed with you last year…and you didn’t give him the job. He thought he interviewed well, and he was surprised.”

I might have forgotten to mention that these “interviews” are a competition of sorts. Each interviewer gets to only pick one kid to “employ”. The “winners” gets to have a special pizza lunch with snacks and soda with the Interviewers and the staff in a smaller, more private dining area (read: classroom) while the other kids eat in the main cafeteria as typical. It’s kind of a big deal for the kids, so if you think you are going to win, and don’t…it’s a slight.

Upon this news from the Program Director, I take out that kids sheet from my packet, write a “N.A.” next to his name and say, “No problem. One less.”

I’ve never met my next interviewee. His name is Jose´ (not his real name). He interviews OK. Not great, but he is older, can drive, is a bit more mature than many of the younger guys, and he handles himself pretty well with the basics. And after some probing we discover that he speaks Spanish. In landscaping, being bilingual in Spanish is a big plus, because many of the crews are hispanic. We discuss this fact at some length, and I tell him to make sure any future landscape employers know he is bilingual. I give this advice to this candidate, and to all these kids. I tell them each to try to learn any Spanish they can while they are in… even if it’s just the curse words.

Jose´ finishes up, and the Program Director comes back in the room and tells me that the kid that got himself booted from the program has “gotten ahold of himself”, and wants to know if I’ll interview him? I say, “Sure. Why not? I’m literally a captive audience.”

So the Director goes in the hall, calls his name, and in walks the kid from last year from Erie, who I said could have been at home on a farm milking cows (see description in 2018 below). I am super glad to see him, and he gives me that big smile that endeared me to him when we first met. I feel like I’m seeing an old friend! When he smiles his whole face smiles and his eyes turn into little slits. It’s the kind of smile that you can’t help but join in when you see it.

Our interview is more of a catch up session than an interview: as I already know pretty much about him. He tells me he’s had some trouble in the past year. Found himself starting to feel hopeless. Is worrying a lot about his upcoming release, because he thinks it’s best if he doesn’t go home to his mom. Both of his remaining alive (one was shot last year in a gang related thing) siblings have been placed with foster parents. He’s hoping for maybe the same. We talk about that for a while.

  • He tells me about making as much as possible out of nothing.

  • How he takes pages out of books (with permission), and circles words on that page, to make his own poetry.

  • He tells me about his latest art projects that sound to me like complex doodles combined with something like graffiti to make larger images. They sound cool, and he says people really like them.

We talk about how worried he is about his future. How he can now clearly see the “dumb mistakes” he made “as a kid”, that landed him here. He says he can’t believe how dumb he was. But at the same time he knows his temper, and he is afraid that when the next situation comes…he might do the same thing. He says he’s not good dealing with issues “in the moment”.

This brings on a brief discussion of fight or flight instincts between us. Next I suggest he writes things down, thinking over night, and then acting the next day. I tell him he can still do the thing the next day, if it still seems like a good idea. He says some of his behavioral modifications people have made the same recommendations. That felt like a compliment to me, because all I was doing was relaying things I personally do to not kill some people.

We wrap up.

  • I really like this kid.

  • I want the best for him.

  • I want him to beat the odds.

  • He has so much to offer, and he is still so young.

  • We shake hands and give each other very genuinely heartfelt smiles.

  • I feel bad that I didn’t select him as the job winner last year.

As I start filling out my paperwork, the Director comes in, tells me we went long, and that we have to hurry to get to the award debrief and discussion. Very strict schedule here. We hustle down the hallway. As we do, I finish my paperwork on the “Farm boy”. He scores well.

I hear the guard in the hall say to Farm Boy, “See that, you suck it up, and face your fears and good things can happen for you. I’m proud of you!”

We get a few steps further down the hallway, out of earshot of Farm Boy and the Director asks me, “So who is your guy?”

I tell him, “I can’t have just one.”

He says, “you have to pick just one.”

I say, “that’s not fair. I’d hire two.”

He says, “you need to pick one.”

…I pick Jose´.

I break my own heart and my favorite kids heart at the same time. Why? Because if it were real life…I’d have picked Jose´. He speaks Spanish, and I could plug him in and make money on him from day one. Having a business is about making money. It’s not a touchy-feely thing, because if I don’t hire folks who are profitable…the business fails, and then I have let EVERYONE down. And would that be the “right” thing to do?

It’s not nice…it’s just true.

I see the Farm boy in the hall during line-up as we make our announcements. I look at him as I pick Jose´. I can see he is disappointed, but seemingly understanding. He smiles a half smile. I mention him by name as I outline my reasons for picking Jose´. I say, “If it was a personality contest…I would have selected differently.”

Does that help? He gets the life consolation prize.

He is marched off down the hall with the others.

As I sit with the less than friendly Jose´ in the classroom eating our pizza and snacks with the other interviewers and “victors”, I can’t help but wonder if I’ll ever see Farm boy again?

  • I want to think not, even though statistics say otherwise.

  • I want to think he respects and understands my choice to hire based in merit over personality.

  • I want to think he gets that foster home, job and happy new beginning.

  • I want to think he lets his artistic side provide nourishment for his soul.

But I’m left feeling like I broke his heart…maybe twice…after only knowing him for a little while…and maybe not knowing him at all. Because on this day: I am the outside world. I am conditional love. I am real life.

Some never get a chance…and I’m not sure there is any way to change that fact.

Be grateful you have opportunity.

Love each other as best you can.

Hang in there “Farm Boy”. I’m sorry.


I did my annual North Central Secure Treatment Unit gig this morning.  Fated perfect timing (there had been a school shooting the day before).  Sat across and along side many young men, convicted of violence and crime.

Six of us local business people conduct mock interviews in hopes of teaching these young men skills that will help them get employed upon leaving this high security unit. It's a noble...and quantifiably fruitless effort.

I interviewed six males, mostly black, mostly urban, mostly juveniles, who had selected "Landscaping" from the list of available fictitious job choices on their list. These fellas had spent the past couple of weeks being educated and drilled on what employers are looking for, and how to answer interview questions. They receive education as part of their very regimented schedules, between lining-up and counting-off in the hallways and trying to earn back their TV rights that they lost because, "Some people in here can't behave, and get crazy sometimes”.

I'm always at an advantage over my fellow interviewers, because I'm the landscape guy. I've hired it all. In this business, you need labor in the spring, and you can't be choosey. Some of these other interviewers need to be more selective. 

In the final years of my bigger business in the suburbs: I stopped interviewing all together. I'd simply tell candidates to show up with work clothes and we'd head out to the job. After a few hours, I could tell who would work, and who would not. Those who were undesirable were given $100 at the end of the day, and a pat on the back. Those desirable were handed employment paperwork and asked to return the next day. I saved a lot of money with this form of interviewing, and a ton of time being told lies and being made promises that no one was ever planning to keep. In fact, most never even showed up at the interview on time. Being late earned them an instant, "Thanks, but no thanks.”

I told my candidates these things this morning, and assured them that in landscaping, you WILL be given a chance at a new start...but you can blow it immediately. The choice is yours. This is why I love my profession: it's the animal kingdom.

That being said, I almost lost it, as I sat across from my last candidate. 15 years old. Big boy. Light skinned mixed race. Boyish looks and smile. Super earnest. Very likable. You could picture him milking a cow.

Unfortunately, he's never been near a cow, that didn't have 12' high, razor wire fence in between.

What he has been near is prisons, and drugs, and violence, and parents who sound like train-wrecks, and foster parents, and more foster parents, and programs, and "the system". He's been in for going on 5 years. In that time, NO ONE has come to visit him...No one. He's from Erie. His brother died recently in a gang killing. He has three left. Their "family dream" seems to be to qualify for the military. This guy sitting in front of me has likely already ruined his chances of even qualifying for that "dream". The guards told me, "They don't take the violent ones”.

I looked a this kid and I felt like my chest went hollow. There he sits, all potential, and life wisdom beyond his years...right on the edge of a cliff...and he doesn't even know it. A couple of choices one way or the other; and the rest is set in stone. 15 years old, with already two and a half strikes against him. Smart enough to learn, and break out...but will he? Most evidence says he will not.

We talked about jobs, and family, and Jesus and Mohammed. He has been Muslim for 2 days now. I told him to watch Life of Pi, but he reminded me about the TV situation. We talked about futures and family and not about school...because he has no real experience with that.

Right on the razors edge.

As we wrapped it up, I let him know that I care about him. That we just met, but I see a lot of myself in him. I asked him about his temper. He asked me how I knew? I told him because we are the same. We talked about being able to visualize the people we want to be; but how something always seems to get in the way. So close, but so not going to happen, because… momentum.

Lost boys. Many smart enough to actually "be something," if only they would give themselves a chance. If only, shown some love before this point.

Love your kids.

Love other people's kids.

Love is the solution.


(taken from a Facebook post, after there had been some discussion prior)

All kidding aside: I'm sitting there, talking to these kids (all black), about how they can make it when they get out.  I'm telling them things like:

  • If you are just on time everyday, you are 50% of the way to star employee.

  • Learn all you can while you are in here.

  • Get books and certifications while you have time and programs here.

  • Hang around with the latin guys and try to pick up some Spanish (not just curse words).  It goes a long way in landscaping.

  • Realize it's a seasonal business and plan on working long days in Spring to make up for short days in Winter.

Practical stuff like that, and they are just glazing over...  Like I'm speaking a foreign language myself.

They told some of the other interviewers that they were likely going to be NBA stars when they got out, or singers or some other type of celebrity.  I didn't get that line, but maybe I interview differently. Regardless, it made me wonder why we do that to our kids? 

As each boy walked in (and they are boys, in every aspect) I saw my daughter.  Same age.  She's got a 105% Average in a highly rated school and wants to likely go into the medical field.  These boys mostly don't have a shot at holding down a landscape job.  What a gap we have.  No hope...and all hope.  So starkly displayed within feet of my face and just hours apart.

They are all just kids. The counselor told us after the interviews that they have a nearly 100% recidivism rate. He said that he is seeing some of these boys for the third time in the system (before they are 20 yrs old).  He says, that as soon as they get out, they will go back to Philly, or Pittsburgh or Harrisburg (this is where they all told me they were from) and within months: they will be right back into the shit.

As I talked to these kids about landscaping, it became immediately clear to me that most of them have barely ever been outside.  They have gone from failing out of school, to failing out of life, to being in institutions.  They think they want to be in landscaping, not because they bring anything to it, or because they have any skills, but because from their perspective: landscaping is a foreign country.  An exotic destination outside of their indoor, institutionalized existence.  It's a unicorn.  Unattainable and a fantasy life of breathing fresh air, and doing something that feels rewarding and meaningful.

And I do that every day...and sometimes complain.

That thought leaves me heartbroken.  

And that's why I do it.  

Hug your kids.