Former Gangster in St. Kitts Aspires to Firefighting

Speeches Shim

Michael Saunders
Michael Saunders
Carol Gaskin
Counseling, skills training help troubled youth avoid jail
“I have a lot of catching up to do. I am trying my best to go the straight and narrow route. Things might not be easy, but I’m learning to cope.”

January 2017—When Michael Saunders was 8 years old, he dreamed of becoming a gangster. But, growing up on the streets of St. Kitts, he learned the hard way that crime does not pay.

Like many youngsters, Saunders refused his mother’s counsel and, from as early as 9 years old, he gravitated to the streets. By the time he was 11, he was smoking marijuana and selling drugs, and when he was 15 years old, he was arrested for drug involvement.

Instead of regular prison, Saunders was sent to the USAID-supported New Horizons Juvenile Rehabilitation Center. New Horizons, an integral part of St. Kitts and Nevis’ juvenile justice system, provides counseling, skills training, and educational opportunities for troubled youth prior to reintegration into their communities

During the two years and three months that he spent at New Horizons, Saunders resumed his studies. An avid songwriter, he welcomed opportunities to perform at in-house concerts. He particularly recalls writing a reggae song in tribute to a well-loved staff member who died, which became an unofficial anthem for residents and staff alike. His experience at New Horizons helped him to realize new dreams.

“I have a lot of catching up to do. I am trying my best to go the straight and narrow route,” says Saunders. Things might not be easy, but I’m learning to cope.

For the past six months, Saunders has been volunteering at the fire department and, more recently, at the defense force. He has applied for a job at the fire department and hopes to be hired now that he is 18.

“When I went for the interview, even the fire chief was impressed. Since I now see life differently, I want to serve my family and protect the country as a whole,” he says. “Without New Horizons, I don’t think I would have been this successful. If I had to ask them to write references for me, they would be all positive. I now see what my mother was telling me [about staying off the streets].”

Saunders hopes to one day return to New Horizons to encourage young people to stay away from crime. He’s grateful for the support of his family and New Horizons staff, and knows that they care. “My past wasn’t good,” he says, “but now a lot of people look at me and say ‘I am proud of you.’”

Debra Matthew, director of probation and child protection services in St. Kitts’ Ministry of Community Development, Culture and Gender Affairs, wants to see Saunders’s success replicated. Thanks to USAID’s Juvenile Justice Reform Program, which supported New Horizons, staff from the Probation and Child Protection Department are now more equipped to conduct assessments to understand the needs of children and families.

“The Juvenile Justice Reform Program has brought our region forward—building an infrastructure for strengthening legislation, capacity building, sensitization and awareness, children and family development programs, to name a few,” she said.

USAID’s Juvenile Justice Reform Program in the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) helped to strengthen the six OECS countries’ juvenile justice systems by supporting reform of the legal framework, building up the justice sector, promoting the use of diversion and alternative sentencing options, and reforming detention processes to focus on rehabilitation of youth in conflict with the law. The program modernized approaches for treatment of at-risk youth in all the territories and helped to bring the region’s juvenile justice system in line with international standards. Phase one of the four-year program officially ended in July 2016.