From prisoner to CEO: Queens native heads nonprofit organization

From prisoner to CEO: Queens native heads nonprofit organization
Julia Moro
By Julia Moro

John Valverde, of Woodside, was incarcerated at the age of 20 for manslaughter after killing a man who had allegedly raped his girlfriend. Valverde spent 16 years in prison. Now, he is the CEO of YouthBuild USA, a nonprofit organization, and has been awarded the Brian S. Fischer Achievement Award from Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison.

In honor of the former commissioner of the New York State Department of Correctional Services, the Brian S. Fischer Achievement Award is given annually to a leader who makes great strides to improve their own life and their community after being incarcerated. Fischer bestowed Valverde with the award at Hudson Link’s 20th anniversary event on May 17 in New York City.

In 1991, Valverde, at the age of 20, confronted Joel Schoenfeld, a photographer who reportedly raped his girlfriend. At point blank range, Valverde shot the man and killed him. Schoenfeld was on probation for two other sex offenses, according to police. Valverde’s girlfriend, who was 19 at the time had answered a newspaper ad in 1990 where Schoenfeld supposedly raped her at his studio. The assault was not reported at the time, the police said.

However, despite his mistakes, Valverde decided to transform his own life.

While Valverde spent over a decade in Sing Sing prison, he earned his master’s degree in Urban Ministry from the New York Theological Seminary, taught fellow inmates how to read and write and worked as an HIV/AIDS counselor. He also co-founded Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison in 1998 to provide support for individuals to make a positive impact on their lives, their families’ lives and the community. Hudson Link believes that in providing this support, it will result in lower rates of recidivism, incarceration and poverty.

“It is so special to us that we’re honoring John Valverde at this milestone in our organization’s history,” Sean Pica, executive director of Hudson Link, said. “Hundreds upon hundreds of Hudson Link students are directly connected not just to the work John did to launch this program 20 years ago, but also to the work that he is doing today for young people and the communities they live in. He truly inspires us by being a living example of what formerly incarcerated people can do to change the world for the better.”

Valverde was appointed to the role of CEO of YouthBuild USA in October 2016 and became the first previously incarcerated individual to lead a nonprofit with a global mission. At YouthBuild, Valverde leads an international nonprofit organization that enables enable out-of-school, unemployed young people to reclaim their education, gain the skills they need for employment and become leaders in their communities.

“It is a true honor to receive the Brian S. Fischer Achievement Award from Hudson Link, an organization that is close to my heart,” Valverde said. “We must do all we can to create pathways that lead to a positive future for our leaders of tomorrow. Access to opportunity, a caring support system and commitment to self-development can help young adults overcome any barriers to rebuild their lives and their communities. While I have helped to address this need, there is plenty of work to be done.”

Reach reporter Julia Moro by e-mail at jmoro@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4574.