For juvenile detainees, 'Supper Club' brings stable connection

You empty your pockets of change, keys and pens, walk slowly through a metal detector and raise your arms above your head for a top-to-bottom frisking.

A grim-looking security guard unlocks a metal door, then two more, closing each behind you with a "thump" as he leads you further into the detention center. Then a final door swings open.

"Welcome," exclaims an affable young woman, gesturing toward a table laden with food and surrounded by fresh-faced teen-aged boys. "Won't you sit down and join us?"

You've made it to the Supper Club, an oasis of dining, conversation and companionship inside a facility not known for its welcoming mien — the 120-bed Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center on North Gay Street.

An initiative of the mayor's office, the Supper Club brings volunteer mentors from the wider Baltimore community together with the residents of youth detention centers for a family-style dinner once a week.

The one-year-old program is designed around a time-tested principle — that sharing regular meals with caring grown-ups provides young people with a sense of stability and connection. It's an experience that teens inside these walls may be only passingly familiar with.

"A lot of people see dinner as family time, a time to relax and decompress together," says Jeremy Smith, superintendent of the $45 million facility. "Not all these kids have been dealt the best hand. We believe every one of them can succeed, given the right structure and setting, and the Supper Club offers some very positive building blocks."

Each of the young men at the juvenile center is alleged to have committed a delinquent offense, and a court has determined they need to be detained because they pose a risk to public safety or a risk of flight, says Betsy Tolentino, legislative and policy director for the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services.

Citing confidentiality restrictions, the department would not say why the members of the Supper Club had been brought to the center. Most of the youths there have been accused of misdemeanors, a spokesman said.

The boys at the facility, all 18 years old or younger, remain in custody until their court dates. The average stay is between two and three weeks.

A bedrock principle undergirds the Supper Club — many of the boys, who are still very young, have been raised in unstable environments through no fault of their own and deserve an opportunity to learn from their mistakes.

"Having never done this kind of work before, I've been surprised to see how introspective these kids are," says mentor Daniel Atzmon. "They're all polite, capable and … ask a lot of good questions. If they'd been born to upper-middle-class families in safe areas, I think they'd already be on their way to doing incredible things."

For one hour per week over a course of six weeks, the Supper Club gives young men a chance to break bread and interact with adults like Atzmon, 24, an IT professional, and fellow volunteer Jennifer St. Germain, a T. Rowe Price money manager. There are similar programs at two other city detention centers.

"Any time there are caring mentors involved, that's great for the kids," says Eric Solomon, a spokesman for the juvenile services department. "That and food."

At 5:30 p.m., four boys in maroon polo shirts enter, joining three resident advisers, program co-director Chayla Fleming and a couple of guests around a long table.

Each greets the others and finds the place setting that bears his name.

"May I pour the [iced] tea?" one 16-year-old asks of Fleming. The Baltimore Sun does not identify people accused of juvenile crimes.

He and a bespectacled 17-year-old dispense the drinks, always decanting from the left, and the group tucks into plates of fried chicken, fresh pasta salad and rolls.

The first half-hour is dedicated to open conversation. The dialogue unfolds around sports.

Atzmon, a South Florida native, sings the praises of the Miami Heat, who won an NBA playoff game the night before.