Back to the Old Neighborhood: A Teen in Trouble Finds a New Hang, October 1996

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The lure of thug life was strong for David Rivera. By the time he was 17, he had dropped out of high school and spent 18 months in a juvenile detention center for aggravated assault. “I probably would have kept going that route,” says Rivera, now 25 and the married father of two boys. “I was living wild.” In 1994, the Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services (CASES) stepped in, offering Rivera six months with them instead of another year of incarceration. “It was a way out,” he says.

When Rivera arrived at CASES, former training coordinator Kate Barnhart recalls, he was a young man without a lot of hope. Though many adolescents coming out of jail have similar emotions, she says, they were striking in Rivera. Barnhart saw promise in Rivera’s gravity. “He was more self-reflective and insightful than a lot of the guys we got,” she recalls.

Knowing his uncle was HIV-positive and hungry for information about the disease, Rivera chose to be a peer educator in CASES’ HIV/AIDS program. He enjoyed the work. “I liked helping other people who were just like me, showing them another way to live,” he says. “It gave me a sense of pride.” And so he continued as a peer educator, first at Bellevue and then at an HIV/AIDS housing and education center in Harlem, before returning to CASES in 1996. The following year, Rivera was promoted to assistant coordinator.

But with a family to support, Rivera looked ahead. While still working at CASES, Rivera enrolled in liberal arts classes at Mercy College. He is now a sheet metal apprentice, a few months shy of becoming a mechanic “It was a tough decision for me,” says Rivera of his career change. “I wanted to continue helping other people, but I decided it was time to start working on me again.”

Still, last year Rivera went back to CASES to run a reading group for young men. And when he met a 16-year-old homeless crack addict at a 12-step meeting, Rivera escorted him to Promesa, a drug treatment facility. “We get a lot of tragedies in the work that we do,” says Barnhart. “David’s one of the people who gives me hope.”

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