Goodwin Mentors to Help Youth Go “Above and Beyond”
As mentors and inspiring stories go, there’s no one quite like James Tillman who can ignite a positive spark.
Tillman, who spent 18 ½ years in prison after a false criminal conviction, shared his tale of overcoming adversity on Tuesday, speaking at Goodwin College before an audience of 25 high school students, their parents, and a team of community partners eager to make a difference.
“These people came together, like they did for me, because they believe in you guys and what you can do,” Tillman told the students.
Goodwin College is one of several community organizations that have partnered in “Above in Beyond Career Explorers.” The brand new program seeks to provide mentorship, training, and guidance to 25 students from the Synergy Alternative High School in East Hartford. The Explorers celebrated the start of the program with a dinner and ceremony held in the Goodwin Community Room.
The three-year program aims to teach the students important skills that will help them socially, academically, and professionally. The Town of East Hartford is coordinating the program, which was conceived by East Hartford High School Guidance Coordinator Frank Staples.
Synergy Principal John Karzar said he did not consider the students to be “at-risk,” but “at-promise” to become leaders and productive members of the workforce.
East Hartford Superintendent of Schools Nathan Quesnel told the students that they need two types of vision: what they have today and what they can do tomorrow. Today, they can learn the skills that will lead to the successful people they can become tomorrow.
“Where are we going? What is the end game for you?” Quesnel asked the students.
Partners include Goodwin, the Board of Education, Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology, Capital Workforce Partners, the East Hartford Chamber of Commerce, Pratt & Whitney, and Work Keys.
Goodwin’s contributions include a venue for events like Tuesday’s opening gala and mentorship. The College has committed members of the MOVE and WISE program to serve as mentors to Synergy students. The Explorers may also attend meetings of MOVE and WISE and participate in career workshops.
Tillman, who described himself as a “51-year-old college student,” is enrolled at Goodwin and is a mentor to the MOVE program. In the late 1980s, he was sentenced to 45 years in jail for a crime he did not commit, and after serving 18 ½ years of his sentence, new evidence exonerated Tillman and he was released from prison.
Prior to incarceration, Tillman told the students he had squandered many opportunities to get educated and trained to enter the workforce and encouraged the Explorers to not make the same mistakes.
While in prison, Tillman found a renewed faith In Christianity and became a source of inspiration to fellow inmates. He let go of his anger and bitterness of his situation and found ways to be a productive member of society.
“Even though I had 45 years, I said I am going to make something of myself,” Tillman said.
When Tillman was released, Goodwin extended an opportunity for an education and he is now pursuing a degree in Human Services. He enjoys being a student and relishes the opportunity to wear a suit and tie instead of the brown khaki jumpsuit he was forced to wear for almost two decades.
“I can do whatever I want today, and it’s a good feeling,” Tillman said.