If Joey Cox's backpack had had a travel sticker on it, it would have read "Nowhere."
That's where he'd been, never having left Modesto.
That's where he seemed headed in life after discovering the thrill of stealing cars — more than 40 during a three-week spree two years ago.
He slept in north Modesto's Chrysler Park for a time when he was in junior high.
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School? His grade-point average barely registered during his freshman year at Davis High.
Twice he landed in Juvenile Hall, each time for thefts.
All of this happened before his 16th birthday, none of it the kind of stuff you'd boast about on a college admissions application. The thought of higher education generally isn't at the forefront when you're handcuffed in the back seat of a police cruiser.
Could this be the same Joey Cox, now 17 and involved in leadership as a junior at Modesto High School?
The same Joey Cox whose GPA has been well over 3.0 the past three semesters?
The same Joey Cox who has become the role model for his sister and brothers?
The same Joey Cox who tells the story of his turnaround to students and organizations throughout the state?
The same Joey Cox whose plans now include college and a degree in psychology?
Yes, he's the same in body and Social Security number, yet an entirely different young man than the one who once swiped a teacher's cell phone and got caught when the teacher used a simple investigative technique to crack the case.
"I used to do the stupidest things," Joey said. "I brought it into class in my backpack. He used his room phone to call his number, and it rang in my backpack."
Uh, it's for you ... . Busted, he went off to his first stay in juvie in 2005. Then, after finishing his freshman year at Davis High, he was arrested for auto theft in August 2008. And yes, he and an accomplice did steal more than 40 cars, as he later confessed to the police.
"I was an adrenaline junkie," Joey said.
So he went back to Juvenile Hall for another attitude adjustment. The second stay, though, seemed to make an impact.
Maybe it was talking to his little sister on the phone, unable to explain to her why he wasn't coming home that night. Maybe it simply was seeing the life he faced -- on a much harsher scale -- if he didn't straighten up.
Before he began his sophomore year, his family found a place to live within Modesto High's attendance area. In one of the high school's hallways, he met a student named Andrew Silva who, like Joey, had experienced a troubled youth. Except that now, Andrew was involved with John Ervin's Project Uplift, a mentoring program that primarily targets black and Latino teens who want to change, but aren't sure how to do so.
"There's a good Joey in there," Ervin said. "We come in and say, 'Hey, let's figure out how to bring that good Joey out in you.' "
"I was walking to the cafeteria one day and I heard (Andrew) talking about going to LA," Joey said. "I wanted to go. I'd never been out of Modesto, period."
He questioned Andrew about the group's upcoming trip to a leadership conference in Compton and asked for an application to go. When he brought it back a day later -- dressed in slacks instead of his usual baggy trousers -- Andrew seemed surprised.
"I thought you were just kidding," Andrew told him.
He got to go, and was one of only three white teens attending the conference. It was his first-ever trip to Southern California, and the first time he'd ever stayed in a nice hotel.
Joey did his part by improving in school. He earned a 4.0 GPA in the spring semester of 2009. He easily passed the high school exit exam on his first try.
All of this impresses Ervin, who accompanied Joey to his courtroom appearances. Joey had to perform more than 100 hours of community service after the auto theft episode, and he wrote letters of apology to the owner of every car he stole.
"Judge (Linda) McFadden asked him in court, 'What was the turning point?' He said 'Project Uplift,' " Ervin said. "They were trying to expedite his expungement (of his juvenile record). Now he's a mentor to other kids."
Erwin, however, keeps a close eye on Joey, making sure he continues to move forward.
"He understands it's not a given that he's going to be successful," Ervin said. "He has work to do every day. We're building his resiliency skills. It's still rough around the edges until you get that smooth brick with which you can build a house."
Joey captivated classes during Modesto High's Day of Respect in February and spoke to a group at the Martin G. Peterson Event Center a couple of weeks ago.
He likes the new Joey Cox much better than the old one, and that's the message he gives others.
Said Joey, "You can have a second chance if you really want it."
Now, if he attached a travel sticker on his backpack, it legitimately could read "Somewhere" or "Up."
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2383.