Wednesday, April 22, 2009

an energetic and indomitable graduate of Saint Joseph's

I'm in the process of reading a book called The Street Stops Here, which is a story about Rice Catholic High School in Harlem run by the Congregation of Christian Brothers. A dynamite read, brutally honest, and if our president read it he just might change his mind about vouchers. The argument that Catholic schools outperform nearby public schools because they skim the best kids is dismissed, as "the students at Rice High School hardly constitute a privileged cohort. Their scores on standardized tests, interestingly, do not exceed those of peers in adjacent public school. But they do exceed in graduation rate and college admission, the signs of a school culture that insists upon perseverance and brooks no excuses."

One passage by the principal Orlando Gober jumped out at me. He was commenting on being a foreman of a jury that presided over 54 cases:

"The stark reality of seeing this parade of young African-American male offenders was so devastating. These kids have been emotionally hurt and abandoned. The adults in their lives failed to guide them properly or reassure them that they could pull it together. Instead, parents and teachers made excuses, which crippled their will power."

Which brings me to my friend Kristin Prinn, SJU '04. She was the keynote speaker at the Assumption Sisters (Religious of the Assumption) fundraiser this past weekend and was kind enough to share her speech. (She will want to stick a fork in my eye for posting it on my blog but so be it) They carve that beautiful Latin Jesuit acronym AMDG in many cornerstones all over the world. This young lady lives it, every day. So much so that I call her "AMDG on steroids". In her vocation she is properly guiding the children of God and she is reassuring them that they can pull it together.

I hope it inspires you as it inspired me. Again, one person can make a difference. For more on what she did in New Mexico please click Kristin Prinn, an energetic and indomitable graduate of Saint Joseph's from the Daily Pennsylvanian.



PS -- a huge Hawk fan too.


AMA Kristin Prinn dancing
with Chaparral pal

“Kristin Prinn… Sister Anne is waiting for you…. Kristin Prinn, please come to the baggage claim immediately”… It was my first day on the border, and thirty minutes after my flight had arrived, into the SMALLEST airport known to man, I was still nowhere to be found, by my soon to be surrogate nunmom, …

I was always into something… always into mischief my whole life, and that first day at the airport was simply one of hundreds of situations where I got myself into trouble with the nuns…

My name is Kristin and I am “la loquita”, the free spirit AMA (Associate Missionaries of the Assumption) that spent three years on the US/Mexico border with the nuns and community of Chaparral, NM (renamed Chapa within a day, as myself and most Bostonians like to abbreviate everything).

Soon after the nuns finally found me, that memorable day at El Paso International, they asked me, “Kristin, que quiere hacer aqui en chaparral? (what do you want to do here in Chaparral)… without hesitation, I blurted out TEENS! “Ahhhh, los jovenes, que bueno! No hay nada para ellos aqui!” (ooooooo the teens, how great, there is nothing for them here!)… Days later the vice principal at the school introduced herself to me, and asked me the same thing… “what would you like to do here at the school?” I once again responded without hesitation, “I want to work with the toughest students you have”… she immediately thought of special ed. students, behavioral students, even developed a list of all the students in the school who didn’t speak English… none of that felt right and she could tell… “I think I know where you will be perfect….. follow me…” I followed her into her office and she proceeded to call off a long list of students for the office staff to pull out of class…. Before I knew it we were in the conference room with twenty gang members…. She looked at me, smiled and said “good luck”, then proceeded to walk out of the room… I didn’t need luck working with these youth- a mutual trust and respect was somehow already present- but perhaps a bit of luck explaining to the nuns, my family and friends, that in that moment, without question, I knew what I would be doing with the rest of my life.

And thus it began, a year turned into two turned into three and before I knew, my AMA experience had given me the opportunity to work with gang members- at a grassroots community level, within middle schools and high schools, I even spent one year in a maximum security boys’ prison.

I have now been working with high-risk teens and gang members for five years, the past two years being right here in Camden NJ, and I don’t see it changing anytime soon.

Now let me tell you a bit about the teens I work with…
They swear a lot… they have tattoos that cover their arms, legs, necks, even their faces sometimes… the waist of their pants very rarely covers their butts, and they’ve done a lot of bad things to a lot of good people… many of them use or sell drugs, are teen parents and have dropped out of school as early as 6th or 7th grade.

These same kids however are the strongest, most inspiring youth you could ever meet. Many have taken care of their own parents since they were young children, raised their siblings, and even gone days without food, months without a place to sleep, and years without hearing “I love you” or receiving a hug. What people don’t know is that those same tattoos that cover their bodies are the names of friends and family that they love and miss, that they’ve lost to gang warfare and drug addiction. That often it’s easier for them to hurt people before someone else in their lives can hurt them again…. That they were sexually abused or beaten, or both, and honestly believe that what little pride and dignity they previously had is now gone.

If I could share stories about all the youth I’ve met I would, but It would exceed my time limit by a year… I’ll share one however…
His name was Manuel but everyone called him ‘Lito… he was 5’8” and a mere 120lbs when he came to the facility, addicted to methamphetamine. He was a Mexican member of the Crips, which wasn’t too common, as that is typically a black gang and there were countless Mexican gangs on the border. He had tattoos all over his arms, fingers, and even the teardrop tattoo by his eye that you see in the movies.

Something about him drew me in immediately. He had severe physical effects of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome in his face, but had these big, beautiful, honest eyes. Some days he would roam into my office and we would talk for hours. He was a well known drug dealer in his area and he was desperate for an alternative. I remember he would grab the dry erase board marker and write Pros/Cons lists about his life and the mistakes he felt he had made, trying to convince himself that there were other options, better options. When I would set the boys up for mock debates, and argue out selling drugs to their friends, families and neighbors I would always win. When they would argue out why they needed to sell and what they were doing with the money, they would. I couldn’t argue against Lito paying rent for his Mom, helping his Dad pay off his debts so he wasn’t killed, putting his sisters and brothers in clean clothes for school and saving a little so he could move them out of a neighborhood he referred to as “hell on earth”.

As I saw it, the only alternative for this beautiful boy was education- his only way out was to graduate, go off to college and get a job. He had already returned to the facility three times and the next time would be on his permanent record and he would go to an adult prison. So he studied, he read every book he could find, he got private tutoring at the facility’s school, he even started writing poetry and music to tell the stories of his life.

He had been sexually abused by his Mother’s boyfriend, beaten for years by his Dad, raised his siblings to be straight A students, but felt all there was for him was the gang life, selling drugs. He sold to his friends, his next door neighbor, pregnant women, mothers, anyone who would buy… then he would go home and cry out of shame and embarrassment- his escape from feeling the guilt and pain of his day was to use the drugs that he was selling… and he did, and it almost killed him, many times.

Lito’s story is a long one but the ending, to me, is what matters the most. My year with him and the others was coming to a close. On my last day Lito handed me a poem with a rose he had made out of toilet paper and dyed with markers. I wiped a tear from my eye and whispered “you got this…”
“I know, I’m a make you proud Ms. Prinn”…
“Put it”, I said (which was the boys’ way of saying- swear on something that means the world to you)…
“I put it on my Mom, miss”… and with that I knew he would do it…

Months passed and I never heard anything from him… I was scared that the same thing that happened the past three times with him had happened again- you can’t search for a minor on the prison website so I couldn’t confirm if he had been locked up again… one rainy day that summer I heard my phone ring… by the time I got there I had missed the call but my messages were flashing. I played my voicemail and sure enough I heard Lito’s voice on the other end… “You were the first person I wanted to tell… I passed my GED and I’m gonna go to college…thanks for believing in me Ms. Prinn”… and just like that, he was gone… I never heard from him again, nor do I have his contact information or whereabouts… he’s 20 now and as much as I believe in him, I check the adult prison website for his name here and there… I guess I do it not because I’m scared to find he will be on it but because I’m so proud of him every time that I look and he’s not.

I’ve seen countless youth get a job and earn an honest wage, acquire their GED, high school diploma, even go on to college. They are wonderful friends, students, sons and daughters, terrific parents to their own kids as well. But they are the forgotten population… we as a society love the cute little children who hold our hands and stroke our hair, that don’t talk back and are excited to read a story with us… these teens were so many of those children just a few years ago… they have so many needs and so few places to go to have these needs met. They are thrown into the streets and prisons and given up on when they’re not even adults, and have so much potential in them to change.

I don’t know where this road will lead me but I know that I wouldn’t be on it without my AMA experience and all the support the Assumption Sisters have given me. My experience taught me countless tools that enable me to do what I do, and do it well. AMA made me into a fluent Spanish speaker- a gift I utilize all day, everyday. It taught me to be proud of who I am, my culture and my life experiences- which transfers to the kids who are then confident in doing the same. It taught me a patience that I definitely never had in the past and can never lose, passion for justice and change that far exceeds writing a letter or attending a march, stick-to-itiveness, hope, and most importantly a faith and believe in God’s presence and guidance that is much more hands on and in my face than I ever thought possible.

AMA changes lives and I know I’m one of hundreds with these stories and experiences to share with whoever will listen. Thank you for listening.


  1. Wow. Truly an inspiration.

    The biggest problem reading stories like this is I end up feeling like a complete bum. Thanks 44 and Kristin. Thanks a lot;)

  2. Beautiful story. I know it has been a while since the story was posted but I had to comment on it. I once knew Kristin for a couple of years while I lived in New Mexico. At the time, she just started working at the youth correctional facility. It was amazing what lengths she went to to support those kids. On top of that, she was working with the Chapa kids. The beautiful thing is that she did almost effortlessly. What she may not know though is how much she changed me. When I met her, I was a college kid without direction. As time passed and she shared with me here vision, dream, and aspirations, I found myself changing. Having grown in a home with a machismo father, I begin a struggle to distance myself from that and become a better human being. Kristin however helped guide me down the right path. She gave me the tools that I needed to become more tolerant and broaden my relationship with God. As time has passed now, I have been able to do that. I now teach and run after school programs for youth and parents in an urban community in Phoenix, AZ. As you may know, the political climate isn't exactly ideal for many of these communities. Regardless, I have been able to use the tools given to me, or rather created within me by Kristin to help the community. In the end, Kristin's reach is much farther than most of us can comprehend. I doubt she even knows it. In any occasion, she is what God's children need. That is, a light in the dark. Thank you for your blog post and thank you Kristin for making me a better human being.