October 26, 2023

Thomas Zapata

Arrested for attempted robbery at the age of 17, Thomas found himself on a bus on his way to Rikers Island—New York City’s dysfunctional and notoriously dangerous jail. A few hours earlier, Thomas and his friends had been drinking and roaming around the Lower East Side. A friend in the group decided that they should sneak up on people using the ATM of a bank nearby and steal their cash. Their plan was short lived, and they were quickly arrested. Thomas was looking at a four-year prison sentence at a time when 17-year-olds could still be tried as adults in New York. The grave consequences of his actions hit Thomas hard while detained, in general population with adults, for three weeks at Rikers Island. Sitting in a cell, Thomas was determined to get out and never come back.

Growing up with a single mother and a younger brother and sister in Alphabet City, Thomas had a close relationship with his family. His mother struggled for most of Thomas’ upbringing with financial and health issues. Making ends meet was a constant struggle for their household. By the time of his arrest, Thomas had lost interest in school, and had been arrested numerous times for petty crimes and infractions. Standing in front of the judge in June 2016, at his first court appearance post-arrest, he was given an opportunity that would change the course of his life: Thomas was given A Second Chance.

Thomas was mandated by the judge to Avenues for Justice (AFJ) for eight months of daily supervision. He would have to attend workshops at AFJ’s Lower East Side community center, call his Court Advocate for daily curfew, take monthly drug tests, and get assistance from an AFJ volunteer tutor for school. If he completed this mandate to the court’s satisfaction, Thomas could receive Youthful Offender (YO) status which would seal his record and he would avoid prison time.

For most of Thomas’ mandate, he was a model AFJ Participant. Calling for curfew and showing up each day at the AFJ’s community center came naturally to him. He quickly grew fond of AFJ’s job readiness program, cooking classes, art therapy, and Teen Empowerment workshops. However, to the judge's dissatisfaction, he struggled to quit smoking marijuana. Using AFJ’s partnerships with peer organizations specializing in substance abuse, his AFJ Court Advocate, Elsie, placed Thomas in an inpatient drug treatment program where he could simultaneously take High School Equivalency (HSE) classes.

While receiving treatment, Thomas began to take academics seriously and for the first time in his life, he actually wanted to graduate from high school. After successfully completing the drug treatment program, Thomas continued his studies through Restart Academy, another AFJ referral partner organization. AFJ also matched him with one of our volunteer tutors, Khrystina, who he keeps in contact with to this day for support.  

Tragically, just as Thomas was making tremendous progress, his mother passed away. Although he was able to muster all the willpower to successfully complete the drug treatment program, her passing, along with the added responsibilities of now being head of household, triggered a very somber period for Thomas. Thomas fell into a depression and sparsely kept in contact with his Court Advocate, Elsie.

Despite not texting or calling, Elsie refused to let Thomas give up on turning his life around---especially on completing school. She enrolled him in Restart Academy, an AFJ partner organization, to continue his studies. Elsie matched him with one of our volunteer tutors, who provided homework assistance, and with whom he stays in contact with to this day for support and encouragement. Thomas’ hard work, along with Elsie’s unwavering commitment to making sure Thomas received the wraparound services he needed, paid off. He completed the High School Equivalency (HSE) program at Restart Academy. Thomas was also sentenced as a Youthful Offender, which included a three-year conditional discharge to AFJ, and his record was sealed.

In 2022, Thomas signed up for AFJ’s Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP) as a music production intern. Monday through Thursday, for six weeks, Thomas interned at AFJ’s Lower East Side community center with a local music producer and worked hard under the supervision of AFJ Court Advocate, Brian. Thomas was the first to arrive at work, the last to leave and he showed tremendous leadership and maturity amongst his peers. Several weeks after completing SYEP, Thomas was hired full-time at a restaurant specializing in salads, where he has worked for close to a year.

Today, Thomas has ambitions to get his security license, to go along with his OSHA-30 certification, which he earned through AFJ’s in-house OSHA training and certification in April 2023. He hopes that by earning different certifications, it will open the doors to opportunities which he never thought would be possible just a few years ago.


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