How the Miami Dolphins' Jaelan Phillips is inspired by mentoring incarcerated teens

MIAMI -- Linebacker Jaelan Phillips of the Miami Dolphins is no stranger to the spotlight.

The No. 3 high school recruit in the Class of 2017 and a first-round pick by the Dolphins in 2021 has been in a high-profile position long enough to understand the responsibility that comes with it. He's still human, though, and public speaking doesn't come easily.

But back in March, as Phillips walked into the Broward County Juvenile Detention Center, which houses youths ages 7-17, the anxious feeling that usually accompanies giving a speech wasn't there.

A different feeling stuck with him, that of conviction.

Phillips worked with the VERB Kind, a community outreach program that serves youths in juvenile detention centers, to remind them their current situation does not have to define their lives and that there are people who care about and believe in them.

He met founder Haley Hunt during the House of Athlete combine in 2021, when she first asked him to help by using her trademark catchphrase: "Come to jail with me."

"When you spend time with them in there, you see how much potential these kids have. And see how much they want to do more, and how much they want to be better." Jaelan Phillips, Dolphins linebacker

The timing wasn't right for Phillips as he prepared for the draft and his rookie season. As for her pitch, well, it's purposely off-putting.

"It's literally to make people feel uncomfortable," Hunt said. "I could be like, 'Hey, come to this juvenile detention center with me,' but I don't. I say, 'Hey, come to jail.' Because it is jail, it's not a program. ... It's more or less to push people out of their comfort zone."

Once Phillips was able to take Hunt up on her offer, he immediately felt the value of what she was hoping to accomplish.

When he spoke at the detention center, Phillips was staring into the faces of kids struggling to shake the stigma of being incarcerated.

"They feel like, 'Oh, once I'm incarcerated, my life is over,'" said Phillips, who had 8.5 sacks and a fumble recovery last season. "'I can't go to a four-year college, I can't, you know, get these top-paying jobs, I can't do that.' And the reality is that's just false. Like, there's so many different avenues that these kids can go through. ... There's so many different jobs that they can work.

"I just don't think there's that education piece out there. I don't think they're aware of all these opportunities for them. That's where we can try to come in with systems that already have things in place to help these kids, and educational pieces and mentorships -- everything like that, so we can help connect them. Just give them some hope."

Phillips didn't make it off the detention center grounds before planning his next visit. The following week he brought some teammates: defensive lineman Christian Wilkins, receiver Jaylen Waddle, safety Jevon Holland, cornerback Trill Williams and running back Gerrid Doaks.

Their visit lasted a few hours, and Phillips said he believed it made the kids' week. It's these moments, Phillips said, that could change the trajectory of those kids' lives once they're released.

"It's heartbreaking for me just to know that, when you spend time with them in there, you see how much potential these kids have," he said. "And see how much they want to do more, and how much they want to be better, but they just don't have the resources.

"... It's all about just giving them love, and giving them some goals and giving them a plan to put into place so that they don't feel so hopeless."

Making an impact

Hunt's work with incarcerated youths began in fall 2018 with a visit to the Orange Regional Juvenile Detention Center in Orlando, Florida, to simply hang out with the girls there. She brought nail polish, picnics and classical music. Soon after, Hunt and members of her Bible study group planned similar hangouts with the boys, which was a near-instant hit at the facility.

"They would remind each other that Ms. Haley was coming and they would modify their behavior," Hunt said. "Because if you mess up ... you don't get to participate.

"A year later, the state of Florida called me and basically said, what you're doing in the jail is [positively] impacting their behavior so much."

In 2019 Hunt was asked to "duplicate yourself" in each of the state's 21 juvenile detention centers. Her second location was in Broward County, and she says she now has programs running in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Jacksonville, Orlando and Ocala.

She officially founded the VERB Kind -- it stands for Victory Everyday Restoring Belief -- in January 2020. She and her group of roughly 100 volunteers plan a playbook every week with visits focusing on things like forgiveness, perseverance over perfection and dealing with trauma.

It's the same mission she sold to Phillips when they met in 2021.

When Phillips made his first visit to the detention center on March 14, he felt that conviction as he was buzzed through each security door, passed through the mural-laden hallways and communal rooms and portable classrooms scattered around a basketball court and makeshift football field.

Hunt introduced him to a waiting group of teens in one of the communal rooms, and Phillips spoke. Not from a script, but from the heart: "Your mistakes don't define you."

"I felt a calling to do it," Phillips said. "I try to relate to them in a way where they don't feel like I'm just sitting up there preaching at them, and reprimanding them for their mistakes. I want to let them understand that we all go through struggles, and we can all relate in one way or the other."

Phillips has dealt with adversity in his playing career. He medically retired during his second collegiate season at UCLA in 2018 after a series of concussions and an accident in which he was hit by a car while riding a moped.

"Obviously, I can't relate to what a lot of these kids are going through," he said. "But everybody goes through their individual struggles. And what defines you as a man, what defines your character is how you learn from those experiences.

"Your adversity doesn't define you, how you react to it does."

Phillips' message hit home according to the center's superintendent, Major Duviel Rosello: "To [the teens] that was invaluable, to see someone like that that could still push through no matter what their circumstances.

"That was the biggest message to the kids from the NFL players, and that's why it was so well received. I mean, the kids had a great time playing with them. And more importantly, they realize that [the players are] not robots or these fictional characters -- just human beings that just work harder than the next person."

Phillips reached out to the Dolphins' social impact committee, which seeks to effect "civic engagement, education, and economic empowerment in South Florida," with the hopes of being able to support the detention center by improving some of the facilities within it.

Next up, he texted his teammates, and it didn't take much convincing to get them to join him. The players donated footballs and basketballs, playing a little of each sport during their visit.

'It just gives me hope'

It resonated exactly as Phillips had hoped. Despite the constant reminders of their environment, it was easy for the teens and the NFL players to lose track of their surroundings.

"It just felt so natural. You kind of almost forget where you [are]," Wilkins said. "Obviously, we're surrounded by barbed wire and everything around the jail and the conditions of the fields and the courts aren't the best, but you kind of forget about all that when you're just messing around playing basketball. It almost feels like you're playing with your little cousin or your little brothers or something like that -- giving them a little knowledge here and there, kind of just chopping up with them.

"I'm sure they were able to take it away, too, and feel just a changeup in their routine, and what they're used to ... throwing around the football, just talking to each other like we'd known each other, just normal conversation. That just really felt good, I'm sure, for all parties involved."

Especially for Wilkins and Waddle, who have known people who went through the correctional system, the visit confirmed the importance of breaking the cycle. It's how Wilkins knew the value of their visit before stepping into the detention center. Even when he "wasn't anybody," he said his friends or family members who were incarcerated appreciated his visits.

Waddle said he noticed a difference in the people he saw go through the system growing up.

"They change," he said. "I think they see from an early age, where they can be, at least from the people that I know, that were involved in [the correctional system]. It makes them grow up fast. And they see it's real life and people do real time -- and it can be a lifestyle if you happen to make the wrong decision."

Rosello said the juvenile justice system is built around preparing them for life once they're released, but that the kids don't always see it that way. It can take an outside source to open their minds.

"Everything is fine and dandy when they're in here and they're exposed to a whole new different group of individuals and programs that want to help them," Rosello said. "But ultimately, when they go back home, how much of that information are they retaining and how much of that are they applying to their personal lives? That's where the challenge seems to be and that's why [the] recidivism rate is so high.

"But sometimes just one conversation is all it takes. And that's what we aim for here. Because sometimes it's just that one interaction, that one person, that one conversation that could steer them in a different direction to make the difference."

Phillips said he wants to work with Kaleb Thornhill, the Dolphins' director of player engagement, to develop a plan for the organization to work closer with the detention center moving forward -- specifically when it comes to guiding teens once they're released.

The relationships he was able to build, even in a short amount of time, have left him ready to commit.

"The pure joy that you see in these kids -- to be able to see the happiness like that man, it just gives me hope," he said. "And I hope that it gives them hope ... we just got to find a way to keep them out of this cycle.

"I don't want to just, you know, go in five, six times and then fizzle out and never go again. It's about having a sustainable impact and about the longevity of this thing."