From Prison to Post Grad: A Mentor and 'Mamma Mia!' Turn a Life Around

Jan 11, 2011
Jenny Inglee is a Los Angeles-based journalist and the Education Editor at TakePart.
Cindy never judged Starcia. She listened and helped her move past her childhood to become the woman she is today.

"Starcia is going to be an inspiration to a lot of people," Cindy Williams says of her mentee.

Starcia Ague is a recent college graduate working with at-risk and vulnerable youth. She is not your average 23-year-old.

Born to 15-year-old drug-addicted parents, Starcia's childhood was a mix of "abuse, neglect and abandonment."

Her mother kicked her out of the house at age 11. With nowhere to go, the child moved in with her father. He cooked meth for a living.

She says, "A couple of years later, there was a huge bust. My dad skipped bail for $20,000, and pretty much left me and told me he would come back for me. He never did."

At that point, Starcia says, "I was not going to school, I was selling drugs, making poor choices, and following right in my parents' footsteps."

When she was 15, one mistake too many landed Starcia in juvenile jail. She spent 214 days in juvenile detention and five and a half years in Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration (JRA) institutions.

Four years later, in 2007, she was introduced to retired Navy officer and volunteer Cindy Williams. The two women clicked.

Starcia says, "Cindy pretty much wears her emotions and her heart on her sleeve; so she is kind of easy to read. I felt like she genuinely cared, and she didn't have anything to gain from betraying my trust."

Cindy was impressed with how determined Starcia was to turn her life around.

"When I met her, she had ideas. She had kind of a fuzzy picture of where she wanted to go. She had no idea how to get there," Cindy says. "I tried to show her how to set goals and go for them, but to break them down into small pieces so they're attainable."

Once Starcia was released by the JRA, Cindy showed the younger woman things she had missed growing up—like the touring Broadway show of Mamma Mia!

Starcia won the Spirit of Youth Award, a recognition given to youth who've overcome obstacles to success.

Cindy says, "It blew her socks off. She had no idea there were things like that in the world."

Early on, Cindy gave Starcia a journal. "I told her when she got in trouble or got frustrated to write it down, and at the end of the year just see how far she's come with it."

Cindy adds, "I think that was part of how she started setting her goals."

One ambition was to go to college. Starcia applied to an online college class as a juvenile offender and got in by writing the college vice president and promising to earn an A. "That was my foot in the door," she says.

Starcia earned a bachelor's degree in criminal justice at Washington State University and is making headway in the juvenile rehabilitation system.

She led the charge in passing a Washington state bill that restricts access to juvenile-offender records.

Starcia explains that if a juvenile commits a Class A felony, "You're never allowed to seal it. It follows you for life."

After being released, she says, "I had to look at 16 houses. I can't pass a background check for housing in a college town. I applied for three apartments, and I couldn't get into any of them."

Starcia testified in front of the state house and senate and was a key proponent in passing the bill to seal juvenile offenders' records.

The law will not apply to Starcia until she's 26 years old, but she's not one to wait around. The improbable college graduate is asking the governor for a pardon. If that request is granted, a big thanks should still go to the spirit of volunteerism.

The mentorship program required the two women to maintain a mentor/mentee relationship for a year. Almost four years later, they remain constant in each other's lives.

Says Starcia: "She's been supportive, she's been a friend, a mentor and a role model."

"I suspect she will be like a lifetime child to me," replies Cindy.

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