At 13-years-old, Alex Velasquez was pushing drugs to put food on the table for his struggling family. Now, the 18-year-old works 14-hour days managing a food truck business operation, known as VIBE 305.
Velasquez is one of many struggling teens whose lives have been changed by Empowered Youth, Inc. (EY).
The local organization works with boys who have been through the Florida’s juvenile justice system. It partners with the University of Miami, which provides training and mentoring for boys like Velasquez.
He will be bringing the organization’s VIBE 305 food truck to campus from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Friday as part of its weekly rounds.
Founder Colleen Adams said the young men who enter the program are her heroes.
“The analogy is that these young men are living in a war zone,” Adams said. “People who never really suffered or never grew up in poverty, they don’t understand the desperation that that kind of hopelessness brings.”
Adams said that poverty drives kids to crime, especially in impoverished neighborhoods because they don’t know of positive alternatives.
“They may be robbing houses or breaking into cars or selling drugs – they may be doing a myriad of things that are available to them in the confines of this very narrow group of resources,” she said. “They end up doing bad things in order to survive.”
Velasquez grew up in poverty and sold drugs because he had access to them.
“I tried to get money by selling drugs,” he said. “I just knew the right person and I knew where to get it, how to get it and I knew how to move it around.”
Boys in the program are given training by various organizations, including UM. Danielle Houck, UM professor of business communication, organizes her students to create customized coursework for classes for the Youth Entrepreneur Series (YES). Topics covered include resume building, appropriate interview attire and business etiquette. More than 100 of her UM students have been involved in the lives of EY children.
“More than survival, as far as the business concepts, it’s giving them confidence,” said Houck, who called the food truck a vehicle to move EY boys to better futures.
Velasquez, 18, entered the program three years ago. He now manages the VIBE 305 food truck. He had a natural knack for business that was refined by the UM training.
Velasquez and his brother Ali were running their own drug operation as children, providing clients with cocaine and ecstasy to sell on the street. Velasquez felt pressured to provide for his younger siblings, and turned to drug sales – putting himself at risk.
According to the federally funded National Criminal Justice Reference Service, in 2010 the rate of total violent crime against children ages 12 to 17 was about 35 percent. According to the Harvard Educational Review, 20 percent of kids in urban areas have witnessed murder and 25 percent have been physically threatened.
At age 15, Velasquez was seriously injured in a fight with a drug dealer who owed him money.
“He wasn’t by himself and I was, and that’s where things went bad,” he said. “I got stabbed – well shanked – in my back, because stabbed, I would’ve been dead.”
Deciding he had too much potential to ruin his life over drugs, Velasquez turned to EY, where Adams accepted him with welcome arms.
The mission of EY is to engender social support and self-esteem building to “at-risk” boys through entrepreneurial training in an effort to steer them away from negative behavior.
Adams said the food truck and other businesses, such as EY StreetWear, the group’s clothing line, are vital to keeping the program alive, particularly because people avoid providing job opportunities to labeled youth.
“They are amazing,” she said. “They are smart and resourceful. They are survivors. [But] I couldn’t find my kids jobs.”
Jan Sokol-Katz, a UM sociology professor, said that in addition to trying to fend for themselves, it’s difficult for these teens to escape negative labeling and crippling stigmas.
“It’s very hard for these children. The privilege of being a child is taken away,” she said.
Sokol-Katz also serves as an internship coordinator who connects UM sociology majors to EY kids.
She said the program offers strong social bonds with positive reinforcement essential in rebuilding valued members of society.
“Often time these kids are just falling through the cracks and there’s nobody there. And that’s why Empowered Youth is a great opportunity for the mentors to come in and be there,” Sokol-Katz said.
if you go
what: VIBE 305 food truck
When: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Fridays
WheRE: Location has not been determined.