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...a day devoted to learning the inner workings of the justice system, and the Duval County Prison was kind enough to allow the members of Youth Leadership Jacksonville a tour of the facility. An air of naivetï hung over the group as we made our way through the musty labyrinth of metal detectors, keycard elevators, and bulletproof glass checkpoints to our destination: a long, narrow hallway, where we were told to line on one side. From a door at the far end of the hall emerged approximately twenty inmates, each of them about our age, and they lined the opposite wall. We grudgingly wore business casual while they wore tattered, fluorescent-orange jumpsuits. The guard had each state the reason for his incarceration: armed robbery, battery, grand theft auto, and double homicide. The inmates' forlorn expressions of regret and shame mirrored the bleak, economy-white walls of the jail. "What separates you from them?" asked the guard.
It was upon those moments that the relationships of the fifty of us who constituted Youth Leadership Jacksonville Class XVIII were constructed. Together we had somberly toured prisons, homeless shelters, and neonatal care units. The experiences we shared stitched together a tight-knit group of people with a blanket of interests and approaches more diverse than I had ever known, and I graduated the program having learned something from each of them.
In the course of all of these experiences, two clear themes developed. One was the fragility of any situation: how easily, how inadvertently we could step off the precipice. From that humbling vulnerability, however, came a sense of possibility. Prior to YLJ, I had often reflected on why I am so committed to my education, and my answer was always, "because it is the right thing to do." These encounters, however, had pushed me to be more productive with my time, more sensitive to the issues and concerns of my community, and more acknowledging of the gray areas of morality. I finally realized who I was striving for, and I grew more clear-sighted in my goals and their significance.
The most rousing YLJ event for many of us was meeting Henri Landwirth, for whom the stakes were literally life and death. A holocaust survivor who had lost most of his family, Mr. Landwirth had come to the United States with only twenty dollars and the clothes on his back. He went on to become a successful hotelier, serve in the Korean War, and founded six different charities, one with which I had already been involved. To me, his story perfectly encapsulated what I took from the YLJ program: the potential for good is present in every situation, as long as one chooses to do the hard work required to bring it about.
To answer the guard's question of what separated me from those that I met at the prison, I believe that I have turned my challenges into opportunities. I have not taken the path of least resistance, but instead, confronted adversity with commitment and determination. I knew that this attitude would only create further possibilities down the road...