In a single-file line, inmates enter a colorful room within the Hillbrook Juvenile Detention Center. Dressed in dark green sweat suits, each of them walks with their hands behind their backs. They're aged 10 to 16, and are facing charges that range from a minor theft to murder.
Most of them take a seat. A few others go to the front of the room and put on latex gloves, ready to serve lunch to their peers under the direction of Modie Cox.
For the next hour, Cox is their point-man. Their leader. Their teacher. Their mentor.
They eat a meal together, and engage in an activity together. Sometimes it's an art project, other times it's a difficult discussion about past experiences.
It's all part of Cox's program, "Winning Because I tried." He brought his mentorship program to Hillbrook with the goal of giving these kids a second outlook on life.
“I think it's just probably the fact that you know I've been where these kids are and I realize that feeling and I know how it hurts and I know how it feels to not really have people in your life like that," Cox says.
Modie's ability to command their respect speaks to his understanding of them. He was born in Niagara Falls to a drug-addicted mother. Like many of the kids he now mentors, he didn't know his biological father growing up. He was adopted by a family in North Tonawanda.
“At fourteen I didn't know what that was about but I knew I didn't want to go back to Niagara Falls, so I just said, yeah I'll come with you," Cox recalls.
Modie pushed through the odds stacked against him. He eventually became a star basketball player with the University at Buffalo, and also did a stint overseas. In his early twenties, he had a run-in with the law on drug charges and spent a year in jail.
Today, he's a community leader across Western New York. Hillbrook is proving to be his toughest, and most rewarding mission yet.
During one November mentorship session, an inmate walked over to Modie and handed him a letter. The inmate, who, by law, cannot be named, wanted to express his gratitude:
Thank you for being a great mentor to us. Always leading us on the right track. I just want to let you know that you is a positive influence to us young kids and we appreciate you for coming when you have the time. Even though I met you in this predicament, you're a great role model to me.
Another inmate likened Modie to a father figure.
"I had a father figure. But once my dad went away, I was on my own... So it wasn't like, I didn't feel like nobody was there by my side or anything. I came here. And somebody that cared."
Cox hopes to eventually take his program into the Syracuse community so he can continue his relationship with the teens as they try to start over.
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