A New Life Course

March 24, 2016

Emanual Andrews

Four years ago, LeMar Ruffin had never heard of Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools® Program. But now, the CDF Freedom Schools concept has altered his life course; and implementing the program in juvenile justice facilities across the country is part of his mission.

The 32-year-old had been a probation officer for about six years when his supervisors told him about a new program they wanted to implement at Camp Afferbaugh. They wanted Ruffin to be one of the lead facilitators. He was told that the CDF Freedom Schools program was aimed at getting youth interested in reading. Although skeptical at first, Ruffin was open to all programs aimed at supporting youth. So in the summer of 2013, he flew to Tennessee to attend his first CDF Freedom Schools’ national training. By the end of the nine-day training, Ruffin already knew that the program was going to be a success at the camp.

“On that last day I asked everyone to raise their glasses and said ‘I want toast to a successful summer.’ They thought I was crazy,” he said, laughing. “But I already knew.”

And he was right. It was a successful summer and the program is still going strong three years later. Ruffin is a large part of that success. His energy and charismatic personality really get youth excited.

“If I act like it is the coolest thing in the world, they are going to think it is the coolest thing in the world,” he says. “But it’s not an act.”

On one afternoon, Ruffin led the participants of the CDF Freedom Schools program through a series of chants, raps and songs – some of which he wrote – that magnify positivity and strength. With his dark sunglasses and urban swag, the youth surround him like they would a rap star at a concert.

“He is truly amazing,” said Jennifer Miller, principal at Camp Afferbaugh. “He takes the music of today and he writes his own lyrics and makes them relatable.”

Even though Ruffin has only been a part of the program for three years, it only took a few weeks of working with the youth to see the positive impact. The songs, the affirmations, the books and the people are all a part of what makes this program work, especially for this population. The Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools program can save lives, Ruffin said.

“African American and Hispanic kids are graduating high school at a lesser rate. They are going to school and college but they are also filling up our prisons. I make sure our children are fully aware of this. This is not just a program; it’s a way for us to save our culture to some extent.”

Camp Afferbaugh holds about 60 students, all of whom participate in the CDF Freedom Schools program. Official say the crimes they have committed include rape, armed robbery, assault – everything but murder. Emotions are high, and the gang and racial tension at the camp is the worst it has been in a long time.

“But to see them all getting along in Harambe, speaks to power of this program,” Ruffin said.

That power is the reason why Ruffin’s hope is to expand the program to juvenile facilities across the United States. It is all about restorative justice and reducing recidivism. Ruffin has even written a book about working with juveniles and how to develop the knowledge and skill set needed to make positive, sustainable changes in the lives of the young and misguided. Ruffin admits that much of that knowledge was reinforced through the Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools program.

“Implementing freedom schools in this environment is the ultimate test for staff,” Ruffin explains. “Normally, we would want a controlled situation, to have the youth separated and their movement limited. But, here, to be able to have the scholars in one room, engaging and having fun together … it’s an anomaly.”

His book, “Out of the Grey,” is expected to be available on Amazon in August.