“I am you and you are me.”
Jim St. Germain’s words hung in the air and stayed there throughout the time that he spent speaking at GOSO. He understands the struggles that GOSO clients face, because he’s been in their shoes. As a teenager he was sent to a juvenile detention center, but he considers that a lucky break: “I just barely missed the cutoff for being sent to an adult detention center. I was 4 months shy of my 16th birthday.” Up until a few months ago, all sixteen year olds were tried as adults in New York City. He spent two years in prison and after those two, he was set to be released, but St. Germain did something unexpected: “I asked the judge for another year.” Our guys were shocked: “Why did you do that?!”
St. Germain replied with his reasoning: “At that time, I felt like I was on a path to positivity, and I needed more time. I knew I was changing, but my neighborhood wasn’t changing fast enough. I feel like that extra year saved my life.”
Looking at what he’s achieved in the past few years, one can definitely see how that extra year has positively affected him. St. Germain earned his bachelor’s degree from John Jay College and is currently working toward his master’s degree from the NYU Wagner School of Public Service. On top of that, he was appointed by President Obama to the Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and co-founded a non-profit organization called PLOT (Preparing Leaders of Tomorrow). Finally, of course he is a published author of a memoir, A Stone of Hope. Yet, through it all, he has remained humble and made it his mission to help other young people involved in the criminal justice system.
“Growing up as a young man, part of my struggle was that I didn’t have a lot of positive role models to look up to. I promised myself that when I’m in the position to do so, I would be there for other young guys.” A lot of the guys in attendance, nodded in agreement, also feeling that they did not have many people who set positive examples in their lives.
St. Germain continued to explain his vision: “I’m using my platform to work on the social issues that I think are important to us. The goal is that people will take my book and use it for years to come. Every decision I make matters. At the same time, I’m also acknowledging the bigger picture – society. There is still a system in place to try to stop you from getting to where you want to go. I am here to break that system down.”
During his visit, St. Germain shared a lot of stories with the guys. Stories about where he comes from, which is Haiti originally and Crown Heights, where he grew up. He shared stories about his friends who have also been incarcerated, who made mistakes at a young age, and friends who he has lost. To him, showing support and love to each other is one of the most powerful things that one can do.
“Words matter. It’s harder for me to hurt you if I’m calling you ‘my brother’ instead of calling you the ‘n-word.’ So if I call you ‘brother’ and things happen between us, we can work it out like brothers. How we speak to one another is important. You are all my brothers.”
It is always an amazing opportunity for GOSO guys to hear from someone who shares their experience. St. Germain had some powerful advice for our guys as well, to remain positive and look to the future with hope: “No matter where you come from, if you have a will to survive and a drive to be better, the path will open up for you. Y’all are the future.”
After his visit, I asked some GOSO guys what they thought about Jim, his book, and what they learned.
Maurice: “I feel like it was a great learning experience. He has a lot of personal experience that a lot of us could relate to. He took his time to speak to us and motivated his listeners to make better decisions. He’s motivational.”
Bobby: “It’s just inspirational. I feel like it could change me mentally. I’m in a similar situation as he described himself being in – I understand. I also left Haiti at a young age, and didn’t have that proper support system. I’m trying to be a better person, and like he said, his book will help me. I can relate to him a lot, and I plan on keeping in touch with him. GOSO is really my ticket.”
Stephon: “I got more knowledge. He’s humble and I feel like I just need to stay humble like him. He’s a good leader and we need leaders.”
Alex: “I could relate to him. He made something out of nothing and he wanted to better himself. I could see that in myself. That’s why I go to GOSO.”