Ryan Rivera was 13 when he was collared for starting a trash-can fire in middle school, locked up and banished to a disciplinary school.
His fate seemed sealed at 18, when he was arrested for selling drugs in Kensington.
Yet, these days, Rivera is a regular in Room 705 of Philadelphia’s Criminal Justice Center, not in the back, on the long benches with the rows of defendants, but up front, a trusted volunteer assistant to the judge. Rivera also works as a peer recovery specialist with the Public Health Management Corporation, counseling young offenders on how to stay on the right path.
He has his sights firmly set on joining the Philadelphia Police Department, if the force will have him.
Rivera’s redemption may seem unlikely. But don’t bet against him, says an army of supporters he’s won through hard work, determination, and no small dose of charisma.
Rivera is 21 now. He lives on his own in an apartment in Juniata, a neighborhood he describes as “beautiful -- like the suburbs of North Philly.” He stays home on the weekends, because that’s a way to stay out of trouble.
His mind is fixed on better things, he says: the police force, a different life.
“I’m fighting hard for it,” he said. “I’ve been through some struggles.”
A TOUGH START
Rivera grew up in North Philadelphia, raised with his twin brother mostly by a single mom. His father died when Rivera was 6.
He was raised on public assistance, violence everywhere. People often got shot in his neighborhood, and sometimes he watched it happen. He tossed a football with drug dealers when he was a kid; he remembers scaling a wall when a ball he was playing with went over it. He peered over the side to see junkies injecting heroin between their toes.
Rivera wasn’t a strong student, and he was bullied.
He started to hang out with the wrong kids. When he was arrested for starting the trash-can fire, he was led out of Grover Washington Middle School in handcuffs. Eventually, he was sent to a disciplinary school where book bags weren't permitted and he had to submit to a search every day.
By 16, Rivera was out of school entirely.
Then he heard about El Centro de Estudiantes, an alternative school in Kensington that focuses on strong relationships and learning centered on students' interests. Rivera's teachers remember him as having lots of energy, always smiling.
“He was one of those kids you could tell had a lot of promise, but you didn’t know which way it was going to go,” said Matthew Prochnow, an administrator at El Centro.
For the first time, Rivera thought that he had adult advocates -- people who cared about his life story, who took him on outings to the movies and to play laser tag, places his mother could never take him. One teacher even taught Rivera to drive.
But it made him wonder.
“Why did you have to get in trouble to get a person to take care of you like that?” Rivera said.
Even with the good, Rivera still wasn't ready to buckle down.
He left school again.
At home, things got tougher. His stepfather got locked up. His mother got breast cancer.
Rivera started selling hard drugs.
“I wasn’t working,” he said. “I did it because I needed the money to eat. At my house, we lived on welfare and SSI checks. It’s not an excuse, but it was a hard time.”
His arrest for possession and distribution changed everything. He spent one day in jail, and that was enough.
“I don’t ever want to go back,” Rivera said. “Call me a punk, but I’m terrified of jail.”
As a first-time adult offender, Rivera was funneled to Philadelphia Drug Treatment Court and put into a program where his record would be expunged if he remained out of trouble for two years.
He took that opportunity and ran.
Rivera ended up back at El Centro at age 20.
JuDonn DeShields, El Centro’s principal, sensed something had clicked.
“When he came back to finish what he started, he was way more focused,” DeShields said. “He sat and talked to me, and it felt like talking to a peer.”
Internships are key to the El Centro experience, and students are encouraged to find their own, pursuing areas that interest them. Rivera, his record successfully expunged, said he’d like to try for something in criminal justice.
He struck out at the local police district. Then he thought about the judge who, years before, seemed fair when he handled Rivera’s stepfather’s case for drug possession and distribution. Rivera decided to show up in Common Pleas Court Judge Rayford A. Means’ courtroom.
Eventually, Rivera got a chance to speak. He told Means what he had in mind, and the judge decided to take a chance on him.
“When Ryan comes through, it’s like the Fourth of July," Rivera said of himself. "I’ve got fireworks behind me.”
It was huge for him, huge for El Centro.
“We have lots of students who are really interested in being part of the judicial system,” Prochnow said. “But we never made one of those internships happen -- not even once. Ryan did it on his own. He used his charm and a little bit of persistence.”
Rivera volunteers -- he stayed on after his internship was over -- in a fast-paced courtroom: waiver trials, plea deals, more than 100 people in and out every day.
He took on more and more responsibilities -- making copies, handling paperwork.
Means saw something in a young man who was direct, polite, honest about who he had been and where he wanted to go. The judge knew that Rivera was at a fork in the road.
“I saw in him that he had an opportunity to be successful if given the chance,” Means said. “He can deal with anybody and everybody, and he’s very dependable. He doesn’t need a lot of direction -- I tell him once, and he knows what to do.”
Rivera graduated from El Centro last year. He was the graduation speaker; his mother wept. Her son was already the most successful person in the family.
“I almost cried, too,” Rivera said. “It was awesome.”
Shortly after graduation, Rivera brought the police officers who had arrested him to El Centro for a forum on police and youth of color. Some students resented the officers’ presence, but it was important to Rivera, and symbolic of his turnaround.
“Ryan said, ‘These people changed my life, and I need to keep them around as resources.’ He’s wise beyond his years,” said DeShields, the El Centro principal.
Rivera has had to cut out some friends and family. He stays at home on the weekends. He identifies more with the police officers he’s befriended than the people who used to be in his social circle.
“Friends treat me differently," Rivera said. "They call me rat, call me snitch. Home is the best place to be -- I stay out of trouble.”
Every job is a stepping stone to his ultimate goal, Rivera said -- when he worked at McDonalds, when he worked as a security guard at Temple University, and now, volunteering for the judge and working in the diversion program that once gave him a second chance.
“My mom taught me -- you have to go for what you want,” Rivera said.
Rivera is a storyteller, a ham, well aware of his own gifts and often unafraid to talk them up. But he’s also smart, a quick study, good at reading people, persistent, and intuitively aware of just how hard to push. He’s resourceful, a networker.
He’d like five minutes with Police Commissioner Richard Ross -- he’d make a believer out of the career cop, Rivera said.
“I want to be an example for so many people,” he said. “I want to make my mom proud and my dad proud. I would feel like my life is complete.”
Long shot? Maybe.
“Because of where Ryan comes from and what he admittedly has done, it’s an unusual path,” Prochnow said. “But if he wants to be a member of the Philadelphia Police Department, I see that happening for sure.”