Once a killer, now a CEO: Ex-con works to turn youths around

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Denise Lavoie

somerville, mass.» John Valverde isn’t your typ­i­cal CEO. He spent 16 years in prison for killing a man ac­cused of rap­ing his Valverde girl­friend.

While in prison, Valverde did his best to re­deem him­self, earn­ing two col­lege de­grees, teach­ing fel­low in­mates how to read and write, and work­ing as an HIV-AIDS coun­selor.

Next week, he’ll take over as chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of YouthBuild USA Inc., an or­ga­ni­za­tion with a global net­work of pro­grams aimed at help­ing young, low-in­come dropouts re­claim their lives and get skills to land jobs and be­come com­mu­nity lead­ers.

Valverde said he thinks it is im­por­tant for him to be hon­est about his past with the young peo­ple he’s try­ing to help. One in three has a crim­i­nal record.

“They are just like me, and there­fore their path could be like mine. And there­fore they could achieve things that they never imag­ined,” Valverde said in a re­cent in­ter­view at YouthBuild’s Somerville, head­quar­ters.

Valverde went from be­ing a promis­ing young col­lege stu­dent to a con­victed killer.

In 1991, at age 20, Valverde de­cided to con­front a pho­tog­ra­pher his girl­friend said had raped her. He shot the man once in the head, at point-blank range, killing him. The pho­tog­ra­pher, Joel Schoen­feld, was on pro­ba­tion for two other sex of­fenses at the time.

Valverde was con­victed of man­slaugh­ter and spent 16 years in prison be­fore be­ing re­leased on pa­role.

“From the first mo­ment, I knew that what I did was wrong, but it was a long jour­ney for me to ac­cept full re­spon­si­bil­ity without ra­tion­al­iza­tion, jus­ti­fi­ca­tion or ex­cuse or blame,” he said.

Valverde said that although he be­lieves “it’s never pos­si­ble to make amends for tak­ing a life,” he de­cided to try to trans­form his own life.

Valverde earned a bach­e­lor’s de­gree in be­hav­ioral sci­ence from Mercy Col­lege and a mas­ter’s de­gree in Ur­ban Min­istry from the New York The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary while he was in prison. After his re­lease in 2008, he worked as a para­le­gal and de­cided to work for non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tions. For the past seven years, he has worked for The Os­borne As­so­ci­a­tion, a New York or­ga­ni­za­tion that pro­vides treat­ment, ed­u­ca­tion and vo­ca­tional ser­vices pro­grams to cur­rent and for­mer in­mates.

“I felt called to per­haps be a face for sec­ond chances and a voice for sec­ond chances,” Valverde said.

It wasn’t too much of a leap for Valverde to make the move to YouthBuild, an or­ga­ni­za­tion de­voted to help­ing peo­ple pull them­selves out of poverty. Valverde beat 124 other can­di­dates for the job.

The first YouthBuild pro­gram was started in 1978 in the New York City neigh­bor­hood of East Har­lem, where a group of teens helped re­build an aban­doned 10-unit ten­e­ment. Since then, it has grown to 250 com­mu­nity-con­trolled pro­grams around the U.S. and more than 80 pro­grams in 21 other coun­tries.

Pro­gram par­tic­i­pants work to­ward their high school diplo­mas or equiv­a­lency while learn­ing job skills by build­ing af­ford­able hous­ing in their neigh­bor­hoods, per­form­ing com­mu­nity ser­vice and par­tic­i­pat­ing in lead­er­ship train­ing. YouthBuild serves mostly peo­ple be­tween ages 16 and 24 who are out of work, out of school and live in low-in­come neigh­bor­hoods, a pop­u­la­tion estimated at about 3 mil­lion in the U.S.

Bri­anna Bell, 18, cur­rently en­rolled in the Youth Ac­tion YouthBuild pro­gram in East Har­lem, said she was ini­tially shocked when she first heard Valverde’s story dur­ing his re­cent visit there.

“But when I met him and got to know him, then I thought, if he can turn his whole life around, why can’t I? Why can’t I do some­thing with my life?” said Bell, who dropped out of high school after mov­ing from Ge­or­gia to New York in 2015.

Karim Couser, 19, also en­rolled in the pro­gram, said he was struck by Valverde’s can­dor about his past.

“He didn’t try to come here with a sales pitch or any­thing,” Couser said. “He showed that no mat­ter what you did be­fore, you could al­ways make a fu­ture.”

Valverde, now 47, has a spe­cial fond­ness for the young peo­ple served by YouthBuild. But don’t call them “at-risk youths,” a de­scrip­tion Valverde sees as a neg­a­tive stereo­type. “Op­por­tu­nity youths” is the more ac­cu­rate term, Valverde said.

“‘Op­por­tu­nity youth’ is really flip­ping that to say, ‘I am a per­son that’s full of po­ten­tial,’ ” he said. “‘I can do any­thing in the world.’ ”

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