Leaving Life on the Streets for a Life Dedicated to Service
Submitted by Hannah Traverse on Fri, 11/30/2012 - 11:36
Where are they now? -- Catching up with 2007 Corpsmember of the Year,
more about Cop and his Corps experience by reading his bio from our 2007 National Conference.
It took a lot of courage for Cop Lieu to get where he is today. Cop came to America with his family via Thailand after trekking across his native Cambodia by foot. Once in the States, he got caught up in gangs and spent time in juvenile detention. What helped Cop turn things around was joining The Work Group in Pennsauken, New Jersey. Just getting through the programs at The Work Group, however, required Cop to show a good deal of personal strength.
“I still had problems with people I used to be friends with. It was almost like I was a rubber band: [my friends] were trying to pull me back to the street while The Work Group was trying to pull me away from it,” said Cop. “The same people that had been my friends pretty much became my enemies. They would say stuff like, ‘You’re too good for us now. You don’t come around anymore. You don’t want to do drugs with us.’ That stood out for me because it took a lot of strength on my part to avoid drama. Sometimes I’d have to change up my route to school because I knew where they hung out and I knew they’d try to make drama.”
Cop is still with The Work Group, but he is no longer a student. These days Cop is a Community Service Supervisor, leading classes of up to 16 students through the same program that helped him leave the streets just a few years ago.
“I train and teach kids basic skills to help them find and keep a job. I teach them skills like being on-time, and learning how to battle 8-hour shifts. I teach them new skills like shaking hands and keeping eye contact,” said Cop. “I have firsthand experience from where they came from. I’m from the inner city and I had trouble growing up. I got in trouble with the law, but I was able to pull myself away from the street and…try to be around positive people… That motivated me to help these young people who are in a position that I was in and help bring them to where I’m at now. It’s really rewarding to see that some of these youth can transition from being in the streets to being more professional and stable.”
This past May, Cop celebrated five years with The Work Group. He came to the organization when he was 17 after hearing about it from his probation officer and other teens he met while in the justice system. Cop was expelled from the regular school system, but he still wanted to further his education. It was at The Work Group that he earned his high school diploma and the respect of his supervisors. His success led to his being hired as a “peer reinforcer” for The Work Group – a position in which Cop helped motivate the teen and young adult participants in the program. Cop took time off after a year as a peer reinforcer, but he eventually applied for his current position and was rehired by The Work Group.
Having the opportunity to mentor youth means a lot to Cop. He believes that what made The Work Group’s program such a successful experience for him was the access to positive adult role models.
“When I came to The Work Group, they showed me attention, they showed me love, and they pretty much just helped me through my struggles. They gave me faith in the future,” said Cop. “They showed me that even though I got in trouble and I felt like the world was over, there are more opportunities out there. They just helped me side-by-side with my personal problems. That kept me away from trouble.”
One of Cop’s proudest contributions to The Work Group is his involvement with the organization’s summer inclusive program. Cop has spent the last three summers helping plan and facilitate the program, which operates with support from The College of New Jersey. A professor, who regularly trained staff at The Work Group on how to help students with disabilities, recognized that Cop – with his patience and people skills – would be the perfect person to help make the inclusive crew a reality. Working with people with physical and developmental disabilities has become one of Cop’s greatest passions. He sees potential in all of his inclusive crew students; he says it’s exciting to see how some students who have previously only socialized with other disabled youth really open up when working alongside the rest of the students at The Work Group.
“It’s just fantastic,” said Cop. “I’ve seen a lot of growth and some kids - they just want to come back.”
Cop wants to go to college to earn a degree that could help him pursue a career in helping the disabled. For now, however, he wants to continue with his position at The Work Group and hopefully see the inclusive program offered year-round instead of just during the summer.
In addition to earning his high school diploma and finding rewarding employment, during his five years with The Work Group Cop also received his driver’s license and obtained his American citizenship. Cop says that without The Work Group he would probably be in the same position that many of his old friends are in: unemployed and without much to offer potential employers.
“I’d be a lump on a log – just staying home and doing illegal activities,” said Cop.
To young people thinking about joining a Corps like The Work Group, Cop says:
“It never hurts to try. Signing up for something like The Work Group can change your life personally and professionally. It’s a life-changing experience…Pretty much, the staff here will go to bat for you, and they will stick out limbs for you. If you don’t join it’s just an opportunity missed.”