Can service learning put "delinquent" kids on the right path?

On any given day in California, there are more than 5,000 young people behind bars--one quarter of them in Los Angeles Country alone. Lucas was one of them.

At 17, drinking and doing drugs, even hotwiring a car for a joyride, was nothing for Lucas. Last year, police caught him and some friends in a stolen vehicle. Even though Lucas (his name has been changed to protect his identity) was just a passenger, the prosecutor was prepared to put him away for at least four years. Lucas took a plea bargain and was sentenced to one year in California's Challenger Memorial Youth Center, a juvenile prison.

It's hard to match the image of wanton recklessness with the soft-spoken, thoughtful 18-year-old Lucas we talked to recently. He has transformed, thanks to a service learning program that's teaching young convicts--including hardened gang members--about global issues, social justice and community activism.

We knew service learning has an incredible impact for students in marginalized, low-income communities who are at higher risk for problems like addiction and criminal activity. When these students participate in our WE Schools programs are 1.5 times more likely to respect their teachers, 2.1 times more inclined to share opinions in class, and almost nine times as likely to launch a campaign to address a social issue they're passionate about, according to a survey of North American teachers, as well as current and former students, conducted by research firm Mission Measurement.

Now, new initiatives in Los Angeles, and in the UK show service learning can create equally positive results for those in extreme circumstances like Lucas who society has given up on.

The Challenger Center's service learning program launched a year and a half ago, following a human rights lawsuit that found education programs in Los Angeles youth prisons were failing to impart even basic literacy skills. As education experts designed a new curriculum, they realized young offenders lacked key social skills--especially empathy. "We were looking for a way to engage them in something outside themselves," says Leslie Zoroya, lead educator at Challenger.

The change in attitude among the young inmates has been dramatic, Zoroya says. "They're so engaged; excited about learning in ways we've never seen before."

The teachers at Challenger taught Lucas and other inmates about the child soldiers of Sierra Leone's brutal civil war. "I was stunned," Lucas says, describing how he discovered global problems he'd never had an inkling about. He tells us it was even more of an eye-opener for the incarcerated gang members, who could relate personally to the violence young soldiers experienced.

"The use of gang language and signs really dropped," Lucas recalls.

Inmates also took on advocacy projects. Challenger students created posters and flyers to raise awareness about child soldiers among youth at non-prison schools in L.A., and wrote letters to local politicians pushing them to take action.

Since then, the students have recorded audio letters sharing their life stories that will be shared at schools in low-income areas where youth are at risk of falling into gang life.

We hear similar positive anecdotes from teachers in the UK, where 20 specialized schools are using service learning for youth who have been taken out of mainstream programs due to discipline problems and learning difficulties. In one such school, Camden students are studying homelessness and putting together food packages for local people living on the street. At the end of the project, the students will create a guide so youth at other schools can take on this issue in their communities.

"Our students to believe they can make a positive change to their local and wider community," commented one educator from one of these special schools in Cheshire.

Back in L.A., Lucas was released from prison just a few weeks ago. He's wasting no time, volunteering as a mentor to other at-risk youth, helping out at a local seniors' home and ready to start college studies in psychology. He wants a career that will allow him to lift others up.

Stories like Lucas' show great promise for using service learning to help at-risk kids, and those who have already walked down a darker road, find purpose to achieve their full potential.

Brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger founded a platform for social change that includes the international charity, Free The Children, the social enterprise, Me to We, and the youth empowerment movement, We Day. Visit for more information.