- Associated Press - Saturday, May 21, 2016

GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. (AP) - Ruben Sandoval focuses on success stories.

Sandoval, a 20-year veteran of the Grand Mesa Youth Services Center, works with underage criminals at the 67-bed facility at 360 28 Road. The work can be challenging, for obvious reasons. But Sandoval, who was recently named Colorado Department of Human Services Employee of the Year, said the stories of “his kids” going on to successful lives inspire him.

Sandoval was with his juvenile residents on a work crew program recently when a staffer of a partner organization approached him, the Daily Sentinel reported (https://bit.ly/1ssiKdN).

“He told me, ‘I remember you - I was in Grand Mesa,’” Sandoval said. “It started to click that I remembered this kid. And as we talked throughout the day, it gave me a good feeling that he was doing well. He was going to college and wanted to get his master’s and . work in the same sort of field.”

Sandoval responded by trying to recruit the man.

“I was like, ‘You should come back here to Grand Mesa when you get a little bit more experience and your education’s done and you’re ready.’”

The next time Sandoval ran into him, the man was working as a case manager for another agency.

Another former center resident went through its culinary program, left the program, graduated from Colorado Mesa University and eventually opened up his own Grand Junction restaurant, Sandoval said.

“(It’s) that proud feeling to know these guys are moving on and doing good stuff,” he said.

Sandoval is an advocate for the concept for restorative community justice, a philosophy that he accepted early in his career.

He originally wanted to go to college to become a teacher, but changed his focus after an assessment suggested his strengths would be well used in law enforcement. His mother had worked in a youth services facility in the kitchen, which inspired him to start researching facilities.

He eventually applied for a temporary job at Grand Mesa Youth Services Center, and within six months was hired as a full-time correctional officer. He worked his way up from there, taking on a group where he taught the residents victim awareness - a piece of the restorative community justice philosophy that helps young offenders understand the impact of their crimes and the so-called “ripple effect.”

“It talks about how their crime not only impacted the initial victim but impacted the victim’s families, friends, that neighborhood, community,” Sandoval said. “It also affected them and their families.”

Sandoval eventually moved into a full-time counseling position. Now his official title is “training and restorative community justice and transition coordinator,” and he specializes in helping kids transition out of the program, whether it’s back into their communities or on to programs elsewhere. He mostly works with those who have been sentenced to time at the center, as opposed to those just being detained until their court hearings.

“When the kids come here, the ultimate goal is to send them home (into) independent living, successfully,” Sandoval said.

Sandoval’s day-to-day duties can involve working to apply for state identification cards or Social Security cards for his charges, setting up transportation for those looking at other programs, and taking the kids shopping for clothes. He manages the weekend work crew, and takes the kids out to work on volunteer projects like helping elderly residents with yard work, wrapping presents at Christmas time or working with advocacy group Partners on weekly projects. At Grand Junction’s recent celebration of Cesar Chavez’s birthday, students in the center’s culinary program served tacos and donated the money they earned, Sandoval said.

“Part of that’s the transition (back into society) because . we have the kids going out and getting used to being out in the community . working on some of the restitution and meeting some of the people,” he said.

Sandoval also oversees trainers for more than 65 staffers and leads restorative community justice trainings himself. Outside his job, he works on the Mesa County Restorative Justice Board, where he works with others to come up with suitable interventions for victims and offenders.

Dave Lee, regional director for the Colorado Office of Children, Youth and Families, said in the 15 years he has worked with Sandoval, it has been obvious that successful transitions for the kids is his priority.

“(Sandoval is) extremely well-deserving,” Lee said. “(He) cares a ton about these kids that we work with, and he’s always trying to find ways for these guys to be successful as they move into less secure settings and move onto parole.”


Information from: The Daily Sentinel, https://www.gjsentinel.com

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