Young offender directs police officer in movie.

Young offender directs police officer in movie.  Program offers offending youth a second chance

Natalie Alcoba

National Post
Monday, April 24, 2006

He was 17 years old and forged a good  grade on a high school report card to  get into university.

“It was a stupid mistake that I didn’t mean  to happen,” the Markham man, now 18, said. “I didn’t come from a bad family or anything.  I was just being selfish and desperate.”

For a while, he thought the mistake would haunt him. But a Toronto program that enables young offenders to give back to their community has stirred up new passions in people like him.

The PACT [Participation, Acknowledgement, Commitment and Transformation] Youth Crime Reduction Program, founded by a pair of Toronto businessmen, aims to reduce the burden on the justice system by changing behavioural patterns of young people who have been in trouble with the law.

David Lockett, a Toronto-based transportation entrepreneur, and Dan Cornacchia, a partner at Ernst & Young LLP, consider themselves to be “social entrepreneurs” who run community service programs that allow youths to make restitution for their behaviour by giving back to the community. PACT was honoured for its contributions this year with an Urban Leadership Award from the Canadian Urban Institute.

The PACT Main Course Cooking School meets for three hours, once a week in a North York Loblaws kitchen, teaching young offenders the skills behind preparing various dishes and exposing the youths to people — mostly volunteers — who care about the choices they make.

The PACT Power of One Film School teaches young offenders the basics behind filmmaking so they can dramatize on camera a social issue in their community. Both groups graduate from the latest sessions today by cooking meals for seniors in the Loblaws kitchen and screening short anti-violence films.

“The earlier you get to a youth who has violent behaviour tendencies, the easier it is to fix the problem,” said Mr. Lockett, 52, noting that crimes committed by PACT youths vary in severity. PACT was designed to “break the cycle” of violence, he said, and was modelled after a “restorative justice” program that draws offender, victim and community members into a healing circle to confront the crime and come up with a fitting restitution. The organization runs on an annual budget of a few hundred thousand dollars, all donations from the community and government funding. There are a handful of employees, and more than 60 volunteers who make the project a success.

Paul Davis, 36, runs the Power of One Film School, fulfilling a life-long dream to teach youths how to tell stories through a camera lens. He has guided about 20 young people, aged 13 to 18, through a six-week film program that involves brainstorming about a community issue, developing a script and storyboard, directing actors and capturing it all on digital video recorders, then editing it into a final product. Topics covered in the past are gang violence and the battle between youth and guns.

Mr. Davis, an ex-young offender who was once busted for possession of marijuana, testifies to the transformation of some students. He remembers one young man, a 16-year-old who had had several run-ins with police officers, and was now making a short film through the program. The young man was in charge of directing a scene with a police officer — in this case, a sergeant who volunteered to be part of the production. “He was telling the cop where to go, directing him as an actor and at the end of the day he had a new respect for them,” Mr. Davis said. “It broke down his impressions of what police stand for or mean to him.”

The community service programs also work to create what Mr. Lockett calls “identity shifts” by exposing youths to new experiences and allowing them to see themselves as citizens with contributions to make.

“[The program] takes them out of their environment and shows them that there is opportunity out there … and there are adults who actually give a damn,” said Marjorie Agnew, who owns a kitchen supply shop on Avenue Road called the Main Course and donates her time and $10,000 annually to the PACT cooking school.

As for the Markham youth who forged a report card, the cooking school tapped him into a new passion for food and he now works as a cook at a local banquet hall.

His charges were eventually dropped. He holds on to a dream of being a police officer one day.

© National Post 2006