I was going to be a basketball coach,” says Orvando Freeman of the career path he started on. Now serving as the Executive Director of St. Johns Youth Academy, he has first-hand experience with how simple connections can change lives. More than two decades ago, a summer job working with incarcerated boys at an emergency shelter made Orvando realize that he could better serve as a life coach to society’s most vulnerable citizens. It was an epiphany that led him to change his college major from kinesiology to psychology.
Orvando came to St. Augustine in 2015 with Sequel Youth Services, when the company took over the contract for operating the St. Johns County Juvenile Detention Center. The now-titled ‘St. Johns Youth Academy’ is a level 8 facility and houses boys all between the ages of 13 and 18, who are some of the most serious juvenile offenders in Florida. “There were very few services for the boys when I came here,” he says.
Within his first year, Orvando teamed up with Caren Goldman, Executive Director of Compassionate St. Augustine to develop programs for the residents that would promote healing and prepare them for a wholesome life on the outside. “We don’t want to do time. We want to do treatment,” he says.
Together, Caren and Orvando brought in Gregory Bright, a wrongfully-convicted and later exonerated activist to give a speech to seventy of the boys about his journey through incarceration, overcoming adversity, and his process of healing in the years leading up to and after his release. “The kids were really inspired by Mr. Bright’s speech,” says Orvando. “Afterwards, a group of us went to lunch and Caren asked me to make a wish list of what I wanted for the kids at this facility.”
That list was the beginning of what is now ‘The Experiential Arts, Culture, and Behavior Enhancement Initiative’. Since 2016, the program has transformed inmates into students, allowing them to learn about art, music, culture, meditation, and even dinner table etiquette.
“The programs we offer allow us to see a very low recidivism rate after the kids are released,” says Orvando. “All of our facilitators are volunteers, which is a huge deal. It shows the students that the teachers are here because they genuinely want to be, not because they are getting paid.”
Overseeing a staff of 93 employees consisting of nurses, therapists, and case managers, Orvando insists that the positives of his job far outweigh the negatives. “I wear many hats. My job is to align all entities with our mission of enriching the lives of the boys who live here,” he says. “It is truly an honor to work with these kids. They give me more than I could ever give them.” The waves of Orvando’s career change all those years ago are now the ripples of success for the students at St. Johns Youth Academy.