Managing Education Director Edgar Derricho educates a group of young men during a Seeking The Right Amendable Path (STRAP) class in Duluth in June. The goal of the STRAP program is to help juveniles in various areas of life in hopes of preventing a troubled future.
STRAP Program for Juveniles
'Seeking The Right Amendable Path' (STRAP) Center provides a program for juveniles to help them in various areas of life in hopes of preventing a troubled future.
DULUTH — On this Saturday morning, Deputy Steven Cooley is dishing out knowledge on dressing appropriately for jobs and for life. The lesson is more about impressions and perception than fashion.
Nonetheless, 17-year-old Ladarrious makes a crack about Gucci underpants. After sharing a chuckle and a quip — “that should be your secret” — Cooley turns serious.
“You may be a great guy, and you may be a very smart guy,” he says to Ladarrious and five classmates, all local kids between ages 13 and 18. “But if you don’t look the part, ain’t nobody gonna believe you. And they’re not gonna give you the chance.”
This interaction, just one part of one weekly session in a six-month course, is what Cooley envisioned. For a long time, the deputy stood watch in Gwinnett County Juvenile Court and wondered what more could be done — not for the gang-bangers and the drug dealers, but the kids caught in the middle. The kids who have made a few bad choices and wound up in front of a judge.
The kids Cooley wants to help are the ones who, as he puts it, “are being sucked in the vacuum.”
“We’re trying to get the ones on the cusp of being in trouble, the ones that don’t really understand choices and consequences, the ones who are really looking for a way out of trouble and to be a better person,” Cooley said. “And are willing to work toward a goal of success.”
Not quite two years ago, Cooley started the program known as STRAP, or Seeking The Right Amendable Path. He enlisted a team of volunteer mentors and instructors — judges, attorneys, teachers, businesspeople — and, inside a nondescript office building not far from Duluth’s Bunten Road Park, they give kids like Ladarrious the guidance needed.
Used often as an alternative sentence, the STRAP program covers topics like dressing for success, choices and consequences, obstacles and goals. It’s education the youngsters may not be getting anywhere else.
Angie Derricho, a teacher at Shiloh High School, and her husband Edgar are STRAP’s education directors.
“Our goal is to empower them to take control of their futures,” Derricho said, “to understand that they are responsible not only for themselves, but they’re also responsible for their role in their family, their responsible for being a positive person and a citizen in our community, and they’re responsible for helping someone else to be successful. That’s what we do each Saturday.”
Gwinnett County Recorder’s Court Judge Rodney Harris owns the space STRAP uses and lends a hand when he’s needed.
“The big thing is just getting their attitude changed and adjusted to the fact that just because people are talking to you, it doesn’t mean they’re just talking at you,” Harris said. “They say, ‘I’ve heard that before,’ but that’s why you’re here — because you heard it and you didn’t listen.”
“Sometimes it’s not that they’re that bad,” he said. “They just don’t know any better.”
Since STRAP’s inception, Cooley has been named deputy of the year by the Rotary Club of Gwinnett County and received a national Point of Light award through the program started 20-plus years ago by President George H.W. Bush.
But what’s important is the change in the kids, and a lot of times that starts with their parents. STRAP also meets with its participants’ parents, calls them to touch base weekly and follows up afterward.
What started as one parent meeting at the beginning of the program will evolve into three during the next session — at the parents’ request.
“The low expectations are the first thing that we have to change,” Derricho said. “I expect you to go to school, I expect you to do your homework. I expect you to follow the policies of that school. We have to change our expectations. And once we can see parents and make sure that they see they’ve got to do that, then we can start to see some long-term success with our children.”
On this day, though, it’s all about the six teens munching doughnuts and drinking orange juice. Back in class, Cooley asks Ladarrius why body language is important. The latter points to a classmate.
“He took my answer,” he says, smirking.
Cooley: “Well get another one.”
“Body language?” He thinks, then looks at another boy. “He took my other answer.”
Cooley: “Well get a third one. You’re a smart guy. You’ve got a brain.”
“Yes, I do,” he says. Just a few weeks from graduating the program, he ponders Cooley’s compliment and smiles.