91-Year-Old Spends Decades Volunteering with Incarcerated Kids

Daily Point of Light # 6736 Mar 19, 2020
Donald Roth Daily Point of Light Award Honoree
Donald Roth stands in front of St. Louis, Mo.’s Family Court Juvenile Detention Center in 2015, where has volunteered his time for almost 30 years./Courtesy Lisa Mandel/St. Louis Jewish Light

Meet Daily Point of Light Award honoree Donald Roth. Read his story and nominate an outstanding volunteer or family as a Daily Point of Light.

Almost 30 years ago, Missouri resident Donald Roth read a column in his local newspaper encouraging laypeople to spend some time with the kids being held at the Family Court of St. Louis County’s Juvenile Detention Center. The Korean War veteran was inspired to reach out to the center’s director, only to find out that such a program did not exist. The dire invited him to come to take a tour of the facility instead. Ever since that fateful meeting, Donald is still volunteering his time to positively impact the lives of his community’s troubled youth.

Donald has spent decades visiting the kids at the facility, talking to them about his life and experiences or playing ping pong and basketball, although as he approaches 92, he can no longer do the latter. He has spoken out against dogfighting to them, which is prevalent among youth in the community, and then brought in dogs from the local Humane Society so they could learn how to treat animals. He has coordinated several other visitors to the center, ranging from the St. Louis University Billikens men’s basketball team, who taught the kids basketball skills, and the St. Louis Classical Guitar Society, which now gives the kids weekly guitar lessons. Now a mainstay at the center, Donald is a sworn citizen deputy juvenile officer.

Describe your volunteer role with the Family Court Juvenile Detention Center.

I started this 30 years ago when a layman could come in and share some of his life experiences with some of the incarcerated kids, whose average age is around 15. I talk about what my background might be, I talk about sports figures. I’ll talk about dogfighting, for example, which is prohibited, and which I would say is rampant with the kids, [although] certain years seem to have more activities involving that. I try to bring in some sports figures. I brought in the representatives of St. Louis University basketball team, who put on a demonstration of basketball skills. That was a memorable situation where the kids really interacted with the players. That was a couple of years ago and I’m in an effort now to recruit some other basketball players from the local scene. I would say I might try to get some of the new St. Louis Blues hockey players, although the kids primarily are interested in basketball and of all things, are interested in playing chess. Something else I happened to bump into is that they love music. In St. Louis, we have what they call the Classical Guitar Society which is an entertainment group and very popular here in the city. I approached them to see if they would put on a demonstration at the detention center and lo and behold, for the last year, twice a week, some of the professors at this Classical Guitar Society conduct classes for the kids and provide the instruments of playing classical guitar. It’s amazing how they took to that as opposed to a conventional guitar, which is predominantly a teenage musical instrument. Also, I talk to them about certain historical events, certainly dealing with the various wars we’ve been involved with. Another area deals with dogs, but also how to treat animals. We bring them some dogs from the Humane Society here. The kids go crazy over it. They can’t wait to bestow some affection on these dogs, which shows the lack of attention they get at home.

What inspires you to keep volunteering in this way?

It occurs to me that these kids are really anxious and eager to hear what’s going on in the outside world because their world is so centered on personal gain and getting involved with gang activities, access to firearms, dope and so forth. It’s an opportunity I think for an adult who’s been around to share their life experiences, and also prepare them when they return back home again. A lot of them are released for their own recognizance before they go before a judge necessarily. I think it’s an ongoing need in our community and these kids, they’re as I say, so vulnerable to undesirable activities. It’s a real national emergency in spite of all the other turmoil we have in the world. I find that for me, it’s been an integral part of my life and I thoroughly enjoy it. I find that maybe if I can make an impression, a good one — if one of the kids, for example, comes to me and says ‘When are you coming back?’, that’s all the real appreciation that I would seek.

How did you first start volunteering with the Family Court Juvenile Detention Center?

Thirty years ago, there was an article in the paper from one of our newspaper columnists that the Family Court was considering bringing in some laypeople, people who had been around and would like to talk to the kids, but it hadn’t been formalized yet. That turned me on, so I approached them. I was a little premature in approaching the director but he said to come back in three months and maybe we’ll have a program established. Time came and went and so forth, and so I said I’m going to try it again. I approached him and made an appointment and he said we still don’t have anything formally installed yet, but let me show you around the facilities and I’ll show you what we try to achieve here. He took me on a tour of the place. I was really impressed with the fact that they really do make a concerted effort to help these kids become happy kids, or at least more well adjusted to the community. So I started coming in. I was assigned a juvenile officer. I came in in the evenings after my work and went and talked to these kids individually or in a group session, and I found it very emotionally uplifting for me. Evidentially they liked what I did. I played ping pong with them. I’m not so good, however, I let them beat me. We play ping pong and I played a little basketball — I don’t do that now. In any event, it was a unique volunteer opportunity. As a matter of fact, the staff at the detention center are so outstanding. One of them I would say I befriended and he retired just recently and he’s a member of my family. He’s outstanding. One of the rewards was establishing relationships with the people and the staff who I think are outstanding.

Why do you think it’s important for these kids to get these types of opportunities?

I think anything that can be done to broaden their life [should be done] because they’re so limited right now from the environment they come from. It’s terrible, particularly in St. Louis. It’s an opportunity while they’re at detention. Our special school district conducts classes every day, that’s five days a week, to help these kids keep up with their particular grade level. So many of them, their reading level is just terrible. They have a staff psychologist. It’s an effort to really elevate these kids to make them more competitive in their local schools, and single schools do need some help. These kids, I know the attention are terrific. Some of them, obviously, show a little bit of hesitation or resistance, they are resentful, but most of them I would say there’s no behavior problem. Some of them, by the way, would like to live there. The food is great, and they get respect, something they don’t get on the street or from their parents. So many of the parents are completely inadequate in terms of their skills. I think, for the most part, it’s an opportunity for these kids to see another part of life. That’s the way I feel. I feel very strongly about it. I don’t have any hobbies but this has been one part of my life that I really have enjoyed and I feel like it’s made me a better person, and that’s the way it’s been. I’m lucky I’m still here.

What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?

I think you can say that it’s a feeling that maybe I’ve done something that’s worthwhile. It’s a feeling that maybe, I don’t know what’s the right word, but maybe a legacy that I have done something that I’ve been looking for. Something meaningful to show my gratitude for so many good things that have happened to me. I have a family with two sons who are outstanding, and health-wise, up until just recently my health has been really very good. I have friends who have shown their affection for me, and my wife who died 22 years ago, so my life has been pretty good. I like to return some of this goodness that has happened to me. This is also coming out of my book. Some of my best friends are those that I met through detention. Not the kids, necessarily. It’s been a rewarding experience. Hopefully, I have made some meaningful, worthwhile impressions upon these kids. Well and good, that’s my motive, but it’s also returned to me in many, many ways.

Do you want to make a difference in your community like Donald? Find local volunteer opportunities.

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