Delaware teen honored for assisting juvenile offenders

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Jane Lyons, with both her Young Hero Award around her neck, and holding her Spark Award, acknowledging her work helping incarcerated youth. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

Jane Lyons, with both her Young Hero Award around her neck, and holding her Spark Award, acknowledging her work helping incarcerated youth. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

Fourteen young people – aged 9 to 18 – came to the National Liberty Museum in Philadelphia Thursday to be recognized as heroes.

The Young Hero Award, presented by TD Bank, is given annually to precocious social service agents who have launched some kind of project to help disadvantaged populations, from Puerto Rico hurricane victims to feral cats in South Philly.

One young lady, Nasihah Thompson-King, 16, lobbied the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association to allow her to wear a Muslim hijab while playing basketball. Another, Morgan Bacon, 17, a nutrition advocate, pressed the Philadelphia School District to put hydration stations – fresh water dispensers – in every district school.

Another teenager was singled out for a new honor — the Spark Award — acknowledging her work to help incarcerated young people has been adopted by the state of Delaware.

Jane Lyons is from Greenville, an affluent suburb outside Wilmington, Delaware, and has attended private schools. Her upper-class environment had never exposed her to the realities of the criminal justice system.

“I just didn’t really understand how the criminal justice worked or how incarceration affected me,” she said. “So that’s why, when I was exposed to it from a close family friend, my eyes were opened.”

When she was in middle school, the life of Lyons’ neighbor fell apart. After his parents divorced and he moved to a different neighborhood, the friend she’d grown up with fell into a life of drugs and stealing. He was incarcerated and went to Ferris School, a campus for at-risk youth operated by the state Division of Youth Rehabilitative Service.

Lyons’ parents expected all of their children to take on service projects – to volunteer or create something that would improve the lives of others. “It’s was like Eagles Scouts,” she said.

And so, the kids in Ferris School became part of her project.

Statistically, juvenile ex-offenders are much more likely to re-enter prison than not. To make a dent in that recidivism rate, Lyons set up a program to provide juvenile offenders with the means to begin more stable lives after their detention. She started with easy things — donations of books, clothes, and sports equipment.

“Everyone was very supportive of me in any endeavors I wanted to do, whether the clothing drive or sports equipment. I had a support system behind me,” said Lyons. “That’s when I realized these kids were lacking. They didn’t have a support system that I’ve had, and I wanted to be that support system in any possible way.”

As a high school freshman, Lyons and her brother – a senior – started Youth Overcoming Obstacles, spending most of their energy on fundraising events to help send kids to camp or pay for vocational training.

The YOO’s re-entry fund for young offenders grew to the point where it was able to help with the down payment on a house for a family trying to move out of a bad neighborhood.

At the time, she was just a sophomore in high school.

The Delaware legislature took notice. Two years ago it adopted her idea and included funding in the state budget. It’s now administered by the government.

Lyons, 18, also was awarded a Youth Hero award as well as the new Spark Award (in memory of Alan Johnson-McNutt, a Liberty Museum staffer and theater artist who died suddenly last summer).

Lyons is about to enter her last year of high school and expects to play lacrosse when she attends the University of North Carolina next year. She vows to keep her focus on criminal justice reform.

“I’ve already started raising money to start a financial literacy program at Ferris,” she said. “Like writing checks, buying a car, started a bank account. Anything to do with financial literacy we learned from our parents, they just don’t have exposure to.”

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