CYC-Online 14 MARCH 2000
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High Octane Program for Youth Offenders

Mark Gamble

Mark Gamble spent two months practice study with the Pressley Ridge Schools in Pittsburgh, where he focussed on the Ohiopyle village program for youth offenders. The physical 'plant' for this program is a series of six camps, each with ten youngsters and three teacher-counsellors, set about a kilometre apart from each other in state forest land, 10km from the nearest shop. The kids are 10 to 17 years old, average 15, who have mostly been involved in petty crime (shoplifting, car joyriding, housebreaking, etc.) and who need a period of relearning.

First of all, there really is a program! The youngsters do not merely come to stay: from the first minute it is perfectly clear that the place has a function and a structure and no time is wasted pretending that this is anything else. Each day is filled from moment to moment, and each activity has a beginning, a middle and an end. First thing, the boys are grouped for a 'huddle' (a sort of team talk) which plans how the 'tents' will be tidied. As soon as this is done, the boys are again huddled so that the task can be reviewed.

In fact every activity goes through this process of planning/motivation, execution, and then review/debriefing. A prominent feature of the program is this repeated experience of planning, activity, involvement, achievement and success. It is obvious to the visitor within five minutes that the boys are engaged and contained by this structure “not imprisoned by it but secured, focused, guided, channelled.

The format reaches every aspect of their day – from the way the tables are laid, who takes duties, how people are greeted, to routines for showering, etc. It ensures that things are done, and also that the underpinning resources for doing them are in place. It is reliable.

A wide range of healthy activities is always on the go – but central to these is a regimen of productive work – learning to organise things, build tents, repair outhouses, cut and strip trees, tie knots. A remarkable feature of the six camps is that they have no permanent buildings. Lean-to's and 'tents' are made with untreated wood cut from the surrounding forest, so that all structures are constantly in need of repair and replacement. The boys are thus coming into contact all the time with adults who have various skills – or maybe adults who do not have specific skills and may even have to learn something from the boys. Running through it all is the affirming structure: each segment of each task is talked about, planned, put into practice, evaluated and celebrated.

An important goal is to move youngsters back into school routines, and so they may move from the first camp to another one where schooling fills more of the day. Three or four times a year there is a major activity, such as a two-week river expedition, which requires considerable planning and preparation.

Everything stands or falls by the quality of the relationships between adults and boys. These are facilitated by the long working hours of staff: five 24-hour days on duty with two days off. This sustained interaction moves relationships along quickly to deep and productive levels.

It is essential that staff are experienced and enthusiastic about life. No great emphasis is placed on their specific human services education, though new staff undergo intensive initial training and there is on-going in-service training. All counsellors are graduates who will move off after a year or so to their careers in engineering, law, education or whatever. Such a staff turnover presents no problem since the children's stay is also around two years, after which it is OK for people to move onwards in their lives.

* * *

Of course there are a few glitches in the program – some staff become demotivated, the good success rate could be better, the after care and follow up may need attention – but the lasting impression is of how different this is from the residential programs one is used to seeing.

The program really focuses on priorities: kids in need of radical re-orientation probably need to concentrate on this for a period rather than keeping up with school; kids who are busy with intensive activity and interaction experiences probably don't need electric lights, TV and health department approved bathrooms; kids learning to discover their skills and their value, and how to relate to others pro-socially, need a few ordinary, accepting people around.

The International Child and Youth Care Network

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