When Julio Lee stepped outside the gates of the Norwalk youth correctional facility in 2009, the 19-year-old kneeled on the dirty asphalt as tears stained his cheeks.
Lee held onto an extra pair of shoes and a couple bars of soap - his only possessions. A woman who hosts a group home in Whittier came to pick him up in her blue Lexus SUV.
"I know what you want right now," Myrna Hesseltine said. "You want food."
Lee's face brightened at the change of menu - after eating powdered eggs and bologna sandwiches for two and a half years, carne asada from a local Mexican restaurant was gold, Lee thought. Gold on a plate.
"I knew I was given a second chance and I didn't want to blow it," said Lee, who shared the group home with Hesseltine's family and four other parolees.
Of the 13- to 25-year-old parolees released from a California Division of Juvenile Justice facility in 2004-2005, 81.1 percent were rearrested within three years, according to a recidivism report from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Lee knew he was up against daunting statistics. Within days, old friends were calling him to go out. "I want to, but I can't," he replied.
He had prepared himself for this. Lee intentionally chose to reside in Whittier upon his release, almost 100 miles from his family and fellow gang members in Palm Springs. That distance, he said, is what strengthened him against the temptation to take up his old habits.
Lee grew up without his father since the age of 5. The poverty Lee lived in and his feelings of neglect led Lee to join a gang in his early teens. Lee indulged in a life of partying, daily drug use, and car theft.
"I ended up wanting to steal things from people to have them feel what I felt," Lee said. "I went through this, how come you're not going through it? So I'm going to make you go through it."
Eventually, Lee progressed to stealing spinner rims and more expensive cars like Mercedes and Range Rovers. Police finally arrested Lee in May 2007 for five counts of strong-arm robbery with a deadly weapon.
In September, Lee was sentenced to eight years behind bars. He remembers crying and cursing in his cell the night he heard the verdict. A staff member peeked his head in, smiled and said: "Go to your Bible and open to Jeremiah 29:11."
Lee grabbed the one in his room and threw it against the wall. He was upset at God. But Lee eventually slinked over to his Bible, and turned to that verse. "'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'Plans to plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'" It gave him a sliver of hope.
Still, Lee quickly learned that pretending to be good allowed him more privileges in the facility. So by the time Lee moved to the Norwalk facility in 2009, he had the staff praising him, while still maintaining his position as gang leader among some of the inmates.
At Norwalk, 61-year-old chaplain Charlie Corum and other Christian volunteers would come in weekly to study the Bible with Lee and the other inmates willing to leave their rooms.
"People coming in on their own free time, people just wanting to accept us for who we are," Lee said. "These people were actually getting to me, and I hated it."
One day, Lee started to really look at his situation: He was living in a cell, at the top of the gang, and doing drugs. "I just told God, if you are real, get me out of this. I need out of this. I'm tired of this. I'm destroying my life, I'm killing my body."
Lee decided to become a Christian, and to live it out even outside of Bible study.
"The norm of the [prison] culture does not support a Christian lifestyle," said Craig Stewart, a teacher in the Norwalk facility and Lee's mentor. "He took a lot of heat, a lot of persecution, a lot of teasing, a lot of disrespect. And he just kept going because he believed in it."
When Lee was told he could get out on parole before his 20th birthday, he had a choice to either go home to Palm Springs or to move to the Whittier group home and start fresh. After praying, he knew where he should go.
In Whittier, Lee began working at a teriyaki restaurant. In two years, he had been promoted from dishwasher to supervisor. He quit in 2011 when he relocated to Oxnard to live with Stewart.
There were times when he wanted to return to his old way of life: "It's appealing to me. … The hardest life to live is the Christian life," Lee said. "But the blessings are so worth it."
Most youth in correctional facilities don't have enough resources to succeed like Lee, Stewart said.
"This is the sad thing about it: These kids get all this attention, love, programming, education, they get Christian education, proper hygiene, everything [in the youth correctional facilities] and then we just slingshot them out back where they came from and say, 'Good luck,'" Stewart said. "And that's why the failure rate is so high."
What made the difference for Lee, Corum said, was that he chose to separate himself from his past. And he had people, like Stewart and Corum, to walk with him in his reentry process.
It's been almost three years since 22-year-old Lee's release and he has yet to add his name to that recidivism statistic. He has told his story of transformation to countless churches and even in other youth correctional facilities.
"What most people do when they come out of prison is leave God in the jail," Lee said. "Praise God I haven't gone back to my old self."
This story first appeared on WORLD California.