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DYS program aims to get offenders back on track

A juvenile offender received congratulations after completing a half-marathon in Boston in late May.

ARAM BOGHOSIAN FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

A juvenile offender received congratulations after completing a half-marathon in Boston in late May.

As “Smooth” by Santana blared over the loudspeakers, 16-year-old Jerrell could see the finish line. Encouraged by his running partner, Jerrell, who had been moving at a quick pace, ­exploded into a full sprint, dashed across the finish line, and completed his first half-marathon.

He collected his gold-colored medal, high-fived his partner, and headed straight to a table lined with paper cups of Gatorade. Dressed in a black dry-wick T-shirt and shorts, he blended in with the other sweaty runners who had finished “Boston’s Run to Remember,” an annual event that honors police officers killed in the line of duty.

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Unlike the other runners, however, Jerrell was not going home after the race. He would instead head straight to the Judge Connelly Youth Center, a high-security 57-year-old concrete building in Roslindale where he and 10 other residents were detained for crimes as serious as carjacking, armed assault, and gun possession. (The Globe does not identify juvenile offenders unless they have been prosecuted as adults.)

For a little longer, however, Jerrell enjoyed being outside and reveled in an accomplishment that only a few months ­before seemed impossible.

“I just feel good,” he said, standing near the finish line at South Boston’s World Trade Center. “I just feel good I finished it.”

‘It just relieves a lot; you feel like you have a lot less on your shoulders’

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Jerrell and other residents of the Department of Youth ­Services facility began running in February, as the newest members of “Sole Train: Boston Runs Together,” a program started in 2009 for teenagers in poorer sections of the city. The goal of the program, started by a mental health clinician who works with the department, is to encourage young people to strive for something big, like running a half-marathon, as a way to pump up their self-
esteem and think more positively about their future. The day of the half-marathon last May, 70 Sole Train members, including youth mentors and children as young as 10, ran the race or completed the five-mile run.

Last winter, the clinician — Jessica Leffler, who works for the Trinity Boston Foundation, a youth services group that launched Sole Train with the help of other community groups — pitched the idea of bringing the program to DYS.

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She and Tina Saetti, DYS ­director of operations for the metro region, decided that the grassy field behind the DYS building in Roslindale would be the best place to start.

Surrounded by a chain-link fence and thick coils of barbed wire, the lot is so small that it takes eight laps to cover a mile.

Residents with good behavior who are close to their ­release date can run outside, supervised, in St. Michael Cemetery, across from the building. The residents run three days a week for one hour, wearing workout clothes donated by Boston police and sneakers ­donated by New Balance.

The residents immediately embraced running, at first as an excuse to get fresh air.

One April afternoon, 11 teenagers and young men lapped the field, accompanied by case workers and staff.

Anthony jogged to the water cooler, panting as sweat matted his curly brown hair.

“I need to run in the cemetery,” he said. “I’m getting dizzy.”

Lenny Beatty, the sturdily built facility manager, reminded him how he could get that chance.

“That’s the whole point of making good decisions,” Beatty said.

“That’s me, man,” Anthony said, grinning. “I’m a good kid.”

Anthony, who turned 17 in May, began getting in trouble when he was 13, soon after his father died. Anthony was shoplifting and hanging out with the wrong crowd.

Then, a friend suggested that they rob people at knifepoint.

“I thought it would be fun, an adrenaline rush,” Anthony said.

He was arrested after police caught him and two friends on surveillance tapes robbing college students.

Every day, he goes to class. At night he reads suspense novels. Running breaks up the ­monotony, said Anthony, who hopes to run a half-marathon this fall.

“I feel like I’m aged,” he said. “I feel like I’m five years older, everything I’ve been through. At DYS, you feel disconnected. You don’t know what’s going on outside.”

Timothy, a 16-year-old who gets out in March 2013, said he feels exhilarated just running in circles.

“It just relieves a lot; you feel like you have a lot less on your shoulders,” he said. “If we run in here and it makes me feel like this, imagine how I’ll feel running in the cemetery.”

Timothy, a lanky teenager with braids and bravado, ­recalled once seeing the Boston Marathon on television. He quickly flipped the channel.

“ ‘I ain’t watching this. It’s boring. I wouldn’t even do this,’ ” he told himself. “Now I think: ‘I can do it. I’m going to win. Watch.’ ”

Saetti said it is too early to say whether the running program lowers recidivism. But for those still in custody, there has been a marked change, she said. Once-aggressive residents are considerably calmer. Those who had low self-esteem seem more confident and focused.

“It’s sort of transformational,” Saetti said. The runs are “a stress release, a way to get out that anxiety you have and get that natural adrenaline,” she said.

The day of the half-
marathon, one resident was forced to bow out when he pulled a leg muscle. Another failed to wake up in time.

Jerrell was determined to see it through. He called his mother and begged her to come at 7 a.m., the race starting time, and went to sleep early. “This is the first time he worked so hard for something,” his mother said.

He finished in two hours and 18 minutes. When he saw his mother at the finish line, he hugged her tightly.

He collapsed into bed ­almost immediately after he got back, but not before showing off his medal.

To Anthony, it looked like a real first-place medal. He wanted one. “It’ll be a good accomplishment,” he said, “finishing something, 13 miles.”

Maria Cramer can be reached at mcramer@globe.com.

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