Jay* is a tough case.

But he’s not just a case. He’s a person—a young person who was raised without a father or any sort of father figure. A young person whose single mother struggled to make ends meet for Jay and his brother and sister.

A young person who was born into life circumstances in which it seemed natural and normal to join a gang.

Ups and Downs

Jay was referred to Wheaton Youth Outreach due to his gang activities. At the age of 17, he had managed to rack up several charges, some of them felonies, which led to a two-year probation sentence and almost a year and a half of wearing an ankle bracelet. (Jay is just one of 15 youth that Wheaton Youth Outreach currently serves who are involved to some degree with gangs.)

Matthew Hanlon, Wheaton Youth Outreach Youth & Family Therapist, has been working with Jay since July 2012. Despite Jay’s challenging past and present, Matthew has been encouraged. “By October 2012, he was making positive decisions about keeping himself safe: staying away from delinquent friends, entering an outpatient drug treatment program, and taking school more seriously,” says Matthew. “I knew we were making progress the day he told me, ‘I don’t want to break my grandmother’s heart.’”

Jay’s mom works to keep Jay on the straight and narrow, as well. She expresses tough love for him by refusing to visit him while he’s locked up. (He’s occasionally in juvenile detention for three days or more if he has a probation violation.) “It’s her way of not acknowledging that part of his life,” explains Matthew. “She tells him, ‘That’s not the son I want to know.’”

Jay has expressed interest in joining the military, so he and Matthew have been investigating the different branches and looking for a good fit. He’s leaning toward the Navy. In December he had his bracelet removed and his mom commented on the positive changes in Jay’s life.

Between Hope and Despair

But while these positive steps have certainly been heartening, they’ve also experienced several crucial setbacks, Matthew admits. “Jay and I have applied for more than 20 jobs without any success,” he says. “And another disappointment: He desperately wanted to join a varsity team at his public high school, but after getting a physical and submitting all the paperwork, the administration decided that they weren’t comfortable letting him joining the team.”

Jay began sharing his frustration. “He is struggling to believe that things could ever be different for him,” says Matthew. “One night he let his emotions get to him—he argued with his mom, walked out of the house after curfew, and didn’t come home that night. Authorities locked Jay up in juvenile detention. When I went to see him, he told me how much he hurts inside and wishes that things could be different.”

Matthew says Jay waffles between being angry at God and believing he doesn’t exist. While Matthew doesn’t push discussions about faith, he does challenge Jay on this particular issue. He asks, “If God doesn’t exist, who, exactly, are you mad at?

“He’s hungry for relationships, but he’s also petrified,” continues Matthew. “I’m thankful for our honest conversations. He’s really a sweetheart in person. There’s nothing scary about him. But there’s this veneer he has to put on.”

Right now, Jay seems to be walking a thin line—trying to determine if the effort of working through his pain and learning to make wiser choices will make any difference for his future.

*Name changed