Homeless at 13, Andrew Kutches robbed people, stole cars and sold drugs to survive. Arrested many times, life on the streets of San Francisco was hard for this young teenager.
"I was shot at many times," he stated in a telephone interview.
With a recidivism rate among youth in this country of over 80%, Kutches was heading towards a violent death or life in jail.
Jane Segal and Vicki Rega spend most of their professional and much of their personal lives mentoring troubled youth like Andrew as part of a program teaching entrepreneurship to incarcerated youth.
While imprisoned at Log Cabin Ranch, 60 miles south of San Francisco, in a desolate, cinder-block facility high in the La Honda foothills, Andrew, then 15, reached out for help to his teachers Vicki and Jane.
"I hated half-way homes and always looking over my shoulder," he said.
Founded in 1986, NFTE (The Network For Teaching Entrepreneurship) a non-profit foundation, has taught entrepreneurship classes to over 650,000 students and trained thousands of teachers including Jane Segal and Vicki Rega. These accredited classes are given at high schools, boys and girls clubs and out-reach programs for jailed youth like the one at Log Cabin Ranch. NFTE's mission is to inspire young people from at-risk/low-income communities to pursue an education, recognize opportunity and plan for a successful future.
Students like Andrew learn business basics including salesmanship, writing a business plan, and managing funds. Some of these "at-risk" NFTE graduates go on to college. "It takes special people with an incredible amount of patience and understanding like Jane and Vicki, to work with this youth population," stated Steve Mariotti, NFTE's founder.
After his release from Log Cabin Ranch, both mentors spent several years encouraging Andrew to avoid the allure of quick scams and re-arrest. After years of constant supervision from jailers and Juvenile Hall probation officers micro managing his adolescence it was a difficult for him to adjust to normal teenage life. Alone, Andrew learned to find an apartment, reintegrate into himself into society, earn a living and provide for himself.
With help from Jane and Vicki, Andrew found lodgings and secured an apprenticeship at the local carpenters union. They watched him start his own contracting company while doing some part-time modeling. In 2006, he competed and won the NFTE Student Entrepreneurship Award, given annually in New York City.
After ending his modeling career abruptly, due to a brain injury incurred in a bicycle accident, Andrew attended business school. "If it weren't for Vicki and Jane, I would still be in jail or dead." With his goals in focus, Andrew says, "the only thing missing is my seven year old son," who now lives in Alaska with his mother.
Annually, millions of young people 17 and under fall below the poverty line. A staggering 60% of all inner-city high school students drop out before graduation.
"This challenged population requires positive role models to break the cycle of poverty, violence, and low self-esteem to become one of millions of high school drop outs," says Mariotti.
Jane Segal grew up in New Jersey. "My mother was an activist protesting the Vietnam War," she said. "My parents supported the Civil Rights Movement. My Dad felt that everyone should have equal rights to an education."
After relocating to Portland, Oregon she ran a federally-funded pre-school center teaching the children of mothers on welfare.
In 1982, she moved to the Mission District of San Francisco where she met Vicki Rega, who lived close by. She taught in the San Francisco Unified School District working with inner-city students drawn from some of the city's toughest areas -- The Misson, Bayview-Hunters Point, and The Western Addition.
Together in 1999 Vicki and Jane started a program called Turning Heads, offering classes in fashion design and sewing for high-risk young women like Marie Harrison, expanding to five different sites across the Bay area. Abandoned by her parents, Marie spent most of her adolescence caring for her sick grandmother and raising her younger sister.
"The area where I lived wasn't safe," she said, "I saw my cousin David get shot by a stray bullet as a result of gang violence."
Several years ago, Marie joined the Turning Heads Sewing and Fashion Design Program. She quickly moved through all levels of the program, including the entrepreneurship training to become a teachers' assistant. Currently she attends the City College of San Francisco, and returns to work on special projects for Turning Heads.
"Jane helped me, and was there to mentor me," she said. "She encouraged me to go to college. She helped with my application and education loans." Marie expects to graduate as a nurse.
Despite the poverty and violence which plagued her neighborhood, the once fearful Marie gained self-confidence as she developed her sewing and design skills. Students at Turning Heads design and make their own dresses, pillows, quilts and accessories. Entrants like Marie learn the basics to create commercial patterns, making stylish and attractive garments. Students are taught to market themselves through using the Turning Heads website, attending street fairs, and visits to retail outlets.
In 2005, Turning Heads launched a co-operative for her students marketing handcrafted yoga mats, bags and sleeping masks. Their designs can be seen at The Sweet Dreams Cooperative website operated by the co-op students and teachers.
Like Marie, Ruby Diaz grew up in a dangerous neighborhood in San Francisco. Between the ages of 13 and 17 she was an active gang member. To survive she scavenged for food with her father in supermarket dumpsters to help feed her five sisters and three brothers. Meeting Jane at the Mission District Urban Arts Program, she joined the Turning Heads Sewing and Fashion Program. Ruby currently takes three busses each way to reach the studio to avoid former gang members and the territory of their rivals.
In April 2012 Jane partnered with the Wells Fargo Bank, Goodwill Industries and City College of San Francisco to launch her first restoration fashion show, showcasing the work of her students during Earth Week. Marie and her fellow classmates debuted their eight piece collection of evening wear made from vintage, second hand clothing. Held at a local branch of Wells Fargo, her students garnered local media attention. "Turning Heads is a springboard for these young women -- giving them a chance to move forward, changing their lives," said Jane.
"Watching Marie and Ruby succeed in gaining self-confidence as they mature makes my work truly worthwhile. Turning Heads offers young at-risk women a second chance."
TURNING HEADS SIDE BAR
Turning Heads520 Hampshire Street-#216
San Francisco, CA 94110
A project of the Women's Foundation of California
Additional reporting by Pauline Parais and John Monteith
Syndicated through StreetBeatNews, the nation's leading journalist writing on youth at-risk. His articles continue to appear in major national publications.