“Accept full responsibility for what you did, seek to make amends, and say yes as much as you can to help others, and you will find purpose and meaning and be free.”
John: I am a morning person so I'm up very early every day before five. I like to be in the office by 6:30 and I really use that 6:30 to 9:00 AM time as my think time, my work on special projects, my engaging my top three priorities time, really my jam session time. It's a habit I actually developed while I was incarcerated.
John: During my incarceration, being in a large cellblock that was often noisy and distracting, that nine o'clock lock-in time was also a time where I knew I was safe, or at least I was locked in my own cell. I didn't have to look over my shoulder or worry about something happening to me. At least for the next several hours, I could relax a little bit, let my guard down. I would sleep for eight hours straight and be up early at 5:00 AM before others woke up, before the cellblock came back to life and the noise became so distracting that little would be possible.
John: I would use that early time in the morning to read and to write and to think and reflect. I still today use that morning time as this period of reflective growth and introspection for me. I start most of my days or just about every day of the year with some coaching, a review that I do and a daily guide spiritual session to keep me centered and really begin the day with positivity and hope and promise for all that's possible. I developed that practice during my incarceration.
John: I grew up in Queens, New York. We did move around a lot but mostly lived in Queens with my mother and my younger brother. I was raised by a single mom struggling to make ends meet. I'm a first-generation American. My mother struggled as an immigrant from Costa Rica, as a single parent. It was really difficult for her to even get a landlord to give her an apartment, even if we could afford it. We really depended on the support of family and others to help us in that way, but my mom was a big believer in education and really reinforced that in me and my brother.
John: I remember so vividly, everywhere we were we had these this 8 x 11 sheet of paper in one of those laminated sleeves and it had the "rules of this house". It had rules like "respect your mom" and "be good to your brother", but the one that I remember the most really is, "always leave things how you found them or, if possible, better". I think that principle early on from my mother reinforced over and over again by her and seeing her struggles and her courage really developed character in me in a way that has continued to be a big part of my life.
John: My parents divorced when I was about eight years old. My father also lived in Queens or in the vicinity. I often saw him on the weekends or at least to play soccer. At times, he was even the coach of the team that my brother and I played on and that's how we tried to maintain a strong relationship with him. I'm the eldest son. I have a younger brother and my father did remarry and I have two sisters from my father's second marriage.
John: Growing up, I loved school. I was a good student and I enjoyed being in school, not just the learning aspect of it, but also the social aspect of it. Very often, even early on my elementary school teachers would pair me with other students who perhaps needed a little support. I think even my teachers could sense that I was caring in that way or sensitive in that way and those students that would get bullied, very often I'd sit next to them. There was something about that that I also enjoyed.
John: Throughout my educational experience, so all the way through high school, I was also very popular as an athlete, but I was even president of the Asian Club and I'm obviously not Asian. I just loved connecting with people and people saw me as a leader from early on. I was on the honor roll and I actually went to college on a full scholarship.
CRIME & INCARCERATION
John: I learned about what happened to my then girlfriend by reading a paper she had written while she was at Stony Brook University. She had been struggling, unable to sleep, and there was something going on, but I didn't really know exactly what it was and she was away at Stony Brook.
John: I was still going to school at Hunter College in Manhattan, but when we would see each other, I could sense and I could see that something was wrong. While she was in a study session, I ended up reading a paper that was on the desk. That's where I first learned and really confirmed that something had happened to her and what had happened to her. It was a paper addressing or responding to an incident in your life that changed everything. That's how I learned about what happened to her.
John: There really are a couple of first night experiences in my incarceration. When I was initially arrested, I was brought to the Manhattan Detention Center and I remember calling my mother and just begging her to please get me out.
John: I knew how serious it was, but I figured I must have thought that I could get bail or that this was unfair, and I should be out. My mother has reminded me of the desperation in my voice when I made that initial call. I was eventually released on bail with the support of funds raised by a woman's organization actually. Then my true first night of incarceration in the prison setting, I think would relate to my experience at Sing Sing Correctional Facility.
John: On my first day, I think I went into the situation feeling like I could not allow anyone to take advantage of me. Someone had approached me in a way that made me uncomfortable, even I felt threatened by it and so I kind of snapped back at the person. Later that day, I went out to the yard and there was about 600 people in the yard. I had never been to a prison yard before. This man had about 50 people around him and it was clear he was a leader of some kind. I went to sleep the first night at Sing Sing Correctional Facility believing I might not make it another day there.
EDUCATION IN PRISON
John: I was very fortunate when I was incarcerated that there was funding through TAP and Pell in New York State to support college education. At Mercy College, at Sing Sing Correctional Facility I was able to complete my bachelor's degree. Upon graduation, I was also able to access, at the time, the only graduate-level program in the entire New York State Prison system offered by New York Theological Seminary, which also happened to be at Sing Sing Correctional Facility.
John: While I was in that graduate program, part of my field study work was to examine the needs of higher education in the prison setting. I used my experience from Mercy College to think about how we could possibly fill the void because Pell and TAP funding was actually eliminated the year that I graduated from Mercy College. Myself, along with others, made it a project to explore how we could introduce credit granting and potentially, one day, degree-granting opportunities for higher education for people in prison. That's where I began to develop the seeds of what would one day become Hudson Link.
John: After my graduation from New York Theological Seminary, we created something called Rising Hope, a certificate program that would offer college credits to people. It was very much based on the New York Theological Seminary Master's Degree Programs. Similar courses like History of Christianity and Pastoral Counseling. As a result of my work there, where I taught for several years, I was approached by civilians we were engaging. Really, part of the faith community, they would come in as volunteers and participate in church services with some of us.
John: We had engaged them and asked for their support in developing a full degree-granting program that would be funded by private funding. Some of them had experience as deans in college and educators and they were willing to open up their networks to help us do this. We engaged the administration at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, the superintendent, or warden at the time was very progressive, was an educator in his career and believed in the power of education.
John: Because of my work with the Rising Hope Program, I was approached to be the inmate representative or liaison for the work that this civilian group of volunteers and the prison administration was doing to explore reintroducing higher education for incarcerated people.
John: As a result of pursuing what my father suggested I do, it really started a path for me to many accomplishments that help build my own self-esteem and confidence and ability to contribute to the lives of others. After tutoring and being a teacher's aide, I was also able to be part of the founding of two nonprofit organizations that still exist today, Rising Hope and Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison. I achieved my bachelor's and my master's degrees. I also went on to take the LSAT. I was the first incarcerated person to do so and the first incarcerated person to be accepted to law school while I was still at Sing Sing Correctional Facility.
John: I was an adjunct professor for Mercy College and Nyack College. I taught at the college level for about 10 years developing my own curricula for many other courses and they were audited by the colleges. I led peace initiatives and went on to help introduce monolingual Spanish speaking only alternative to violence programs and many other amazing things during my incarceration.
John: When you're in prison, you really think that your life is over, that there won't be any opportunities for you to grow or to become a better person. In fact, you probably think a lot about not making it out of there. Having access to education during my incarceration made all the difference. I look back with such gratitude today because my own sense of self was so wrapped up in wanting to make my parents proud after the harm that I had done, after the incredible failure of my crime and everything they had hoped for me.
John: When I graduated both with my bachelor's degree and then my master's degree, it was just the opportunity for me to share such gratitude with my parents for having stuck with me up to that point in my incarceration. Almost the only way I could give a gift to them to show them this is who I was always meant to be, who you raised me to be. I'm sorry that I didn't live up to that until now, but today I feel that I'm becoming the person you always hoped that I would become. It was an important step in my life. Again, I looked back on that with such gratitude because I was able to see my life wasn't wasting away. I could actually fulfill some of my dreams and the dreams my own parents had for me even in prison.
IF YOU’RE NOT IMPROVING, YOU’RE FALLING BEHIND
John: When I hear the phrase, "If you're not growing, you're dying," I automatically reframe that in my mind as if you're not improving you're falling behind. This is probably the perspective I have on that. One thing I know from my incarceration experience was that each year I set a goal to be better than I was the year before. I would establish some goals every year, including the number of books that I would read for example, and things that I wanted to learn, particular courses that I was interested in, for example. I would set those goals, and each year I was able to say that I am better today than I was a year ago.
John: It really instilled in me a lifelong learner mentality that I continue to apply today. I still have the goal that one year from today I want to be better than I am today. I want to be making more of a difference than I'm making today. Really, it's all been based on wanting to be better, so I have more tools to contribute to the world and to the lives of others.
John: At the time of my arrest, I was estranged from my father. Our relationship was not in a good place, and we were not seeing each other very often. It was when I was arrested and incarcerated that we reconnected. My father had a hard life. He died in an accident three years before my release from incarceration, but he was also divorced twice and suffered in business and was bankrupted and failed in several business attempts that he tried, and just really struggled and had a very hard upbringing.
John: I think all of that experience had really come to this point in his life when I was incarcerated. He had done so much work on himself and to improve himself, that interestingly enough, early on in my incarceration he was able to become a mentor for me and helped guide me. He would send me Og Mandino books and Dale Carnegie books that he had read and that had made a difference for him.
John: I think he always saw in me my leadership potential. He, again, coached me when I was younger as a soccer player, and he saw something special in me I suppose as any father would. He also was very worried that upon my release from incarceration whenever that would be that it was going to be really hard for me. I'm often saddened by the thought that he died afraid that I wouldn't be able to make it when I was released from prison.
John: If my dad were alive today, I just know he'd be very proud of me. I miss him a lot. I think about him a lot. When I find the penny, I think he's saying, "Hello." to me, so I pick it up and collect it, and so I have many of those over the last several years, that have been a good reminder for me. I do believe that he's watching over me and that he's very proud of me. I know he's grateful that he was able to share words that became so powerful for me, that they turned into my meaning and my purpose.
John: Initially, upon my release, I was just so happy to be home and free and be with my mother again and my family again, and begin the rest of my life. I didn't know what that would look like. I was definitely afraid of the judgment, rejection, discrimination of the world. I definitely felt that many would not give me a second chance, and that was also my father's greatest fear before he passed away, but it was hard not to be grateful and be joyous about being home and not having to lock in or look over my shoulder in the same way I had for so many years. It was really great to be home.
John: I was very fortunate early on in my reinserting myself into society because I had developed enough relationships and had maintained my connections with my family during my incarceration. I had a network of people upon my release, and within one week I actually started working. I was working at a law firm where a friend and a family member were the principals. I was able to get employment through them and I feel so grateful to have had that opportunity to be again socialized to the world of work, begin commuting like every other person had to do and earn some income that could help my family.
John: That initial opportunity almost reintroduced me right away to life as a free person. I feel very fortunate that I was able to reconnect so quickly to society in that way, and that I would be given a chance without having to explain the 16-year gap on my resume or what I had done, or to deal with the background check that would result in the denial of employment.
John: Working at the law firm was really a great experience to realize that I had skills, transferable skills that I had learned during my incarceration that could actually contribute to a business on the outside. However, very often I would answer the phone and I would be afraid to share my full name. I didn't want anyone to know my last name because they could look me up and find me on the internet. I was so afraid of being exposed in that way.
John: After a year at the law firm, I started to realize that I was not living authentically. I was hiding from the world, but it really wasn't until I participated in a leadership seminar that my sisters had introduced me to, where I really discovered that.
John: When I came home, I didn't know what life would be like, and I was struggling with different things and fear. When I think about my own healing and my journey, I reflect on my nephew, my godson, actually inviting me to Special Person Day at his school and being able to be home for my mother's 70th birthday. Those two experiences alone, after my incarceration, almost erased the 16 years. They healed me. They reminded me that I had lived all those 16 years. I wasn't locked away and not growing. I had actually become a better person.
John: Today, 10 years after my release, I'm really grateful for the life that I have the privilege to lead, making a difference in the world, being an example for others, being the first formerly incarcerated CEO of a non-profit with a global mission. While there's tremendous responsibility with that, as I know everyone seeking a second chance is counting on me, I feel that my life and my journey has prepared me to contribute to life in this way and be a part of something greater than myself. I'm humbled and grateful for everything that I've experienced and that I can look back on it and be at peace.
FORGIVENESS & VULNERABILITY
John: When I look back on my journey, especially the journey that included my incarceration, I think about coming to terms and what it was like to translate my remorse into the acceptance of 100% responsibility for what I did and the wrong that I did. A big part of that process included, for me, a journey to forgiveness. I, over time, was able to forgive myself which helped improve my sense of self, manage my guilt, my shame to a place of healing and to a place of authenticity.
John: Today, I understand especially engaging young people who've overcome so much in their lives. They're in that similar process, that similar redemptive journey is what I call it or journey to healing. I know how important it is for them to arrive at a point where they have confidence in themselves, believe in themselves and know how important that is to the quality of the life they will lead. Parents, they will be the human beings. They will be the leaders. They will be in the world one day. For me, sharing my story I've learned is very important because people begin to open up and perhaps even have the courage to share and release their pain, their past, their shame, their guilt which allows them to live into an authentic life that would otherwise not be possible.
John: While my story is an incarceration or a redemptive story after a period in prison, I've actually had people tell me after hearing my story that they've opened up with their families about being gay or have opened up with others about being HIV positive and what that means or sharing other struggles that they've dealt with all their lives and now are feeling they're able to release. While sharing my story is very difficult for me and forces me to relive some experiences that I would rather not relive, I've learned how important it is and what a contribution it can be to the freeing of others. In a life that I believe has meaning and purpose because I support people in achieving their freedom and living out their full potential, sharing my story has become a key part of that.
John: When I think about leveling the playing field and creating a world that works for everyone or at least more people, I can’t help but take my personal experience and really reflect on my own second chance and know that somewhere along the way, people saw me as more than my past. They realized that none of us want to be defined only by the worst thing that we’ve ever done but by who we are today and who we can be in the future. That’s been something I’ve tried to instill in young people in the communities they are a part of, in the partners that we work with. To really create genuine second chances for people, we must see them as more than just their past or their ZIP code or their upbringing. We must see their potential so that they can live into futures they never imagined were possible.
John: When I made the decision to leave the law firm, it was because I had discovered an inauthenticity in me, maybe a living out of integrity because I was hiding from the world. I did know that every day. I was grateful to have a job and to be earning some income and to have a place to go every day, but I knew deep down it wasn't even comparing to having created programs and done higher education work during my own incarceration. I knew that I wasn't fulfilling my true meaning and purpose there. Even in roles that I've had since then, I knew on those days where I didn't want to go into the office that there was something I needed to reflect on, explore that would reconnect me to my meaning and purpose.
John: It's important for anyone to revisit that from time to time. Take time to think and reflect whether it's at the end of the year or the beginning of a new year where you're setting goals to be sure that you're living the life that will be the most fulfilling for you, the kind of life that you can look back on and have as few or as little regrets as possible knowing that you did your best. At the end of my life, my hope is that people will see me as more than my crime and my incarceration but really for the good that I sought to do in the world, the difference I hope to make, and my commitment to supporting people, standing with people in achieving their full potential, and that I was a good son and a good husband and a good human being. I believe that that will be a life well lived.
John: Certainly, one of the challenges of working in the social services field or the justice field is that you must be thinking about collective responsibility and individual responsibility. What I've learned over the years, recognizing that circumstances can be overcome and even a setting as challenging as a prison setting can have opportunities if you seek them, I've really learned that if you want things to change, sometimes or often you have to change, and if you want things to get better, usually you have to get better.
John: That's really connected to me wanting to be better than I am today, one year from now and really having an approach of continuous improvement to make a difference in the world. If more people approach that and use that even to explore the ways they find their meaning and purpose, I think it's a path for collective responsibility and collective impact that makes the world a more just and good place. Together we can be a force for good.
John: One of the things that I picked up during my incarceration that still continues today is I really go through a weekly process of reflecting on my accomplishments for the week, what I learned that particular week, the way I managed my inner critic voice, the way I manage self-care. I do a very intentional process of this to review my habits, to review my priorities, to make sure I'm putting my focus and attention in those areas that will make the most difference for my own personal growth and for the impact that I want to have in the world. Having a process, a consistent process like that, I believe is a key to anyone's success.
John: One example I learned in prison, one of my professors had shared it with me about developing a vision for your future, involved how she took her daughter on a college tour when she turned 15 so that her daughter would have a vision for her future that included college and maybe would be a pathway to avoid teen pregnancy, which was a big concern of hers. I've learned over the year’s thinking about that example and others, how important it is to have a vision for where you see yourself years down the road because without that vision, it will be impossible for you to live into it, but with it, you will develop the habits, practices, skills, create the priorities and goals that you need to get there. That's been a very important part of my own success journey.
John: An important aspect of my success journey has been guarding my thoughts. As anyone could understand or imagine, when you've done harm in your life and you experience shame and guilt as a result of that, it's very easy to put yourself down and to allow others to put you down and diminish you in any number of ways. The key will always be that you don't make those statements into your beliefs about yourself, that your self-esteem and your confidence in your sense of self must be positive. This is very important to connect to the work that we do with young people who've never heard very often, never heard in their lives that they could be somebody, that they're loved, that someone believes in them. I've learned over the years that without that, without that support from my family and mentors and others, I wouldn't have made it.
John: Reflecting on my incarceration, one thing I definitely did was my best to surround myself with positive people. In a setting like prison, it is, of course, easy to surround yourself with people who are in a negative place and maybe have tendencies and habits that are harmful. I learned early on in my incarceration to do my best to surround myself with positive people, people I could see as mentors, people who could inspire me or be examples of surviving and thriving even under the worst of circumstances.
John: What I've learned is even here on the outside, it's very easy to surround yourself with not just negative people but negative information and distraction that diverts you from your goals and the focus that you need to have to be successful. I think I've done a very good job of surrounding myself not just with good people but people committed to excellence so that I can strive to be like them and therefore grow.
John: While life will never be without challenges, I truly believe that if you give your best with integrity each day everything will turn out exactly as it needs to for the highest good. Those words along with what my father instilled in me early on and even my mother's words to "don't look back; only look forward", they're all connected to the difference I want to make in the world believing that I got a second chance for a reason.
John: I first heard about YouthBuild while I was working in New York City with The Osborne Association. One of the local YouthBuild programs, and I believe it was in the Bronx, contacted The Osborne Association for some guidance, perhaps technical assistance or at least the conversation around some criminal justice work since many of their young people had criminal justice involvement.
John: YouthBuild works with 16 to 24-year-olds who are out of school and out of work and provides an alternative school and workforce development training environment for young people to complete their high school equivalency or diploma, get vocational training, provide service to their community, develop themselves as leaders and also experience counseling and life skills support.
John: In 1978, YouthBuild was founded when our founder asked young people - if you had adult support, what would you do to improve the community? They said, "We'd take back the abandoned buildings, we'd rehab them, and we'd create affordable housing." That's where the key construction component of the YouthBuild model was implemented. Really around affordable housing, addressing homelessness, and rebuilding of communities and developing community assets, all in the hands of young people with support from adults.
John: One of the most rewarding things about this work definitely involves engaging the young people. I don't know that I could do this work without the inspiration that they give me and also meeting with staff, really the people on the ground day to day who work with young people and address all the challenges that young people in their communities are facing in order to support young people in being able to create the next greatest version of themselves and contribute to their communities. That really keeps me going.
John: During the interview process for this opportunity at YouthBuild, I often wondered to myself why would they hire someone with a criminal background when I would need to be a role model for young people? Over the last couple of years, I've realized how wrong I was about that and actually how much I identify with the young people. Speaking with them, it's just been such an inspiration. I'm reminded every time I talk with them why I do this work, why it's important to be here. I've heard young people tell me, "Mr. John, I have no more excuses. If you can make it all the way to being a CEO after being incarcerated then I can do it too."
John: It's also great when some of them say, "But I don't want to go to prison." That's important to me that they get that incarceration isn't part of the pathway to success for them. It's also really amazing to hear from them, their commitment to being leaders, to being contributors to their families, for making a difference in their communities and in the world, because these are young people who grew up in poverty, really had nothing, have suffered extreme trauma, have multiple barriers or perhaps the most vulnerable young people in our country and yet something in them, their resiliency perhaps even an understanding or a beginning of an understanding of how much they've overcome allows them to sense that they're capable of more.
John: There's so many stories I've heard visiting sites, but one that comes to mind that's more recent is of a group of young people. The young person begins to share his story, and he makes a statement that he realizes that growing up he was surrounded by the wrong people. He gets very emotional and starts to break down and then says, "That's why today I want to be the right person for the next generation". It's just powerful that this young man has this level of commitment despite being in a community suffering from unemployment, poverty and crime and every social ill that you can imagine. Even in those circumstances, he is committed to being a leader and mentor and support for other young people. That's what YouthBuild's all about. I'm hopeful when I hear stories like that from our YouthBuild people because I believe that they're capable and interested and ready to take on the world and make it a better place.
John: It's definitely something I connect with very personally. This young man is finding meaning and purpose by focusing on others and something greater than himself. I think that's what's kept me going over all these years. I think I do meet the young people where they are, and I enjoy listening to them. I'm interested in hearing what they may be going through on that particular day. I'm grateful that I can be someone who really listens and respects them and treats them with dignity and values them. It can be very unique each time.
John: I think one of the main first steps any young person needs to take, especially when they arrive at a YouthBuild program, perhaps the first step was having the courage to really go and do the mental toughness orientation and go through the process of actually enrolling in a YouthBuild program because as you can imagine, for young people who've dropped out of school, it can be very difficult for them to return to school. Perhaps they're in an environment where the young people are much younger than them and they're uncomfortable with that or have shame around that.
John: The first step really is the courage to return to an educational environment, belief that they can be successful if given the opportunity at a YouthBuild program. Very often they have to give up employment in order to be able to pursue their educational and vocational activities. That's a key first step but I think the main step is once they're at a YouthBuild program, their willingness, their openness to trust. If these amazing staff at a YouthBuild program can build trust with the young person, it begins to free them, release for them some of the pain, some of the trauma as they begin to open up.
John: If they can begin to do that, they can then begin to see themselves very differently as the quality of any person's life is always attached to the way you see yourself. As young people begin to see that others see them for their potential and what's possible for them, they start to believe that anything is possible for them as well. That's the YouthBuild journey where there's this constant support that young people receive but it starts with building trust so that they can move into a new space of possibility.
John: I think a lot about where I want to see YouthBuild in five years. We've had an amazing 40 years with this model, tremendous impact over that period of time and the world has also changed a lot during these past 40 years. The world for our young people, the future of work, the different workforce development opportunities depending on the context and locality that a young person lives in and many other factors are now at play in a way that they weren't even two years ago, five years ago for sure.
John: The future of YouthBuild really is an increased focus on skill sets, mindsets and impact for young people and their skill sets around their livelihood and their ability to learn and navigate complex systems, especially workforce opportunities so that they can become the leaders that they were always meant to be. That's going to require a strengthening of connection with the field of YouthBuild programs all over the world with an increased global focus as we now know we have over 350 million young people aged 16 to 24 out of school and out of work. It's also going to require us to go into career pathways beyond construction, which has been our foundation for all these years, into other fields like IT, healthcare, and customer service.
John: In five years, we hope to have increased the outcomes in terms of young people graduating with diplomas, achieving employment and retention in employment, and also into post-secondary education pathways, also increased literacy and numeracy. There's just amazing things that are possible in partnership with our corporate partners, local government, work we can do with state coalitions, depending on the number of YouthBuild sites in a particular state, but the main focus is that we want to continue to strengthen connections not just with our field, but with our graduates, with individuals in the program, with key partners, because none of us are able to do this alone.
John: We really need partners working together to level the playing field to ensure we don't lose another generation of young people.
- John Valverde, CEO YouthBuild USA