LLA Students Share Stories of Personal Growth at Notre Dame de Namur University

On her first day out of a court-mandated group home, Julia decided to try something new. Instead of reaching out to her former friends to hang out, smoke, and disengage

By Justin Warren


On her first day out of a court-mandated group home, Julia decided to try something new.

Instead of reaching out to her former friends to hang out, smoke, and disengage as, she says, she might have in the past, the 10th grader volunteered to join a group of five other Life Learning Academy students to speak to a university class.

“It’s something positive to do. Something I’ve never done that’s a new experience,” she said.


“I feel like I’m growing.” — Julia, 16


The guest presenters traveled this week from LLA’s campus to Notre Dame de Namur University to share their stories of personal transformation with Sociology students studying criminology and social issues.

Hosted by university lecturer Stephen LaPlante, the bi-annual visits allow the college students to gain first-hand insights into the challenges that teens face when they become involved in the juvenile probation system, and understand the range of adaptations they make in order to persevere.

LLA alumnus Josie Najera, who now works an on-campus counselor and mentor for students like Julia, recalls being invited to speak to the same classes 10 years ago — at age 16 — when the school first started the college speaking engagements.

“It gives students a chance to talk about the good things they’ve been doing here [at LLA], but also reflect on the bad, and the progress they’re making,” Najera said.


Above: Julia gets help from Math teacher Dennis Muldoon at LLA. Top: The LLA guest presenters gather with LaPlante at Notre Dame de Namur. 


Julia’s progress has been steady since she joined the school this semester, according to Najera. She is attending consistently and earning strong marks in class. Most importantly, she’s connected to LLA’s strong network of peer and staff support.

“She knows her outlets now,” Najera explained. “She knows that if she reaches out, she has someone to talk to, and all it really takes for her is to have that conversation with someone to help her get back on track.”

With practice talking through their life challenges with counselors at LLA, Julia and her classmates embarked to share their perspective with the university students. For Julia, it wasn’t easy, but she found it fulfilling.

“I got emotional telling my own story,” she recalled. “It felt good though. It felt good to get it out.”

The chance to share her progress, including this week’s successes, marked a personal milestone. Having been “in and out of group homes” for the past two years, she now takes pride in her accomplishment of completing her probation requirements and getting back on track.

“It feels good,” she said. “I have certain freedoms now, you know? After school I’m able to go home by myself, I’m able to hang out if I want to, I can do whatever I want to do.”

With this freedom, she acknowledged to the class, comes an opportunity to live up to her new personal goals, and avoid the choices that got her involved in the juvenile system she worked hard to escape.

“I’m actually doing well, I’m in a school that I like,” Julia explained, adding that now she tries to “stay around people that I know are doing positive stuff.”

Julia knows she could decide to return to her old habits, but that the decision about her success — including the pursuit of her own seat in a university classroom — is hers to make.

“It came from myself,” she explained. “I had to sit down and see what I was doing wrong, and see how to fix that. It came from my growth.”


Discover how LLA’s new initiative, LLABUILD, will create success for teens who lack safe, stable housing. Visit, and follow our progress at @LLASF!