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BUILDING LIVES

Program instills at-risk kids with WORK ETHIC
by: Jim Hart Carl Lovick, left, works with youths in the Project Payback program, teaching them how to build owl boxes for the day-use recreation area near the Sandy River. Lovick is director of operations for Wilderness International, which supervises the project for BLM.

About three years ago a teenager from Sandy (we'll call him Sam for anonymity) made a poor choice, and he had to pay a price for his misdeeds.

The Clackamas County Juvenile Court judge ordered Sam to pay hundreds of dollars in restitution and prove he could turn his life around during supervised probation and counseling.

Since Sam is from a single-parent low-income home, getting money to pay restitution and court fees was initially impossible.

Fortunately for Sam and other at-risk youths, along comes the group Wilderness International, headed by Executive Director Russ Hall, offering a way to pay restitution and court costs.

In partnership with the Juvenile Department and the Bureau of Land Management as well as Clackamas Community College and the Oregon Youth Conservation Corps, Hall and his crew leaders teach, supervise and counsel at-risk teens (age 14-18) who are selected for specific work programs in the Juvenile Department's Project Payback.

One of the most recent work projects was at the former Marmot Dam site on the Sandy River about a dozen miles northeast of town.

The former PGE site is now owned by BLM, and is being converted into an extensive day-use picnic area, thanks in part to the efforts of a number of Hall's work crews and their crew leaders.

Looking at the big picture, the BLM has hired Wilderness International to work on the day-use park, and the Clackamas County Juvenile Department has hired Wilderness International to teach and supervise the youths' work crews on this project. Some of the funding was provided by the Oregon Youth Conservation Corps.

Youths in the crew owe from $200 to $20,000 in restitution, and some have been working for four years to pay for their mistakes.

Crews are working in Project Payback Monday through Thursday during the summer, and Friday through Sunday during the school year.

During the school year, Hall said he would have about 40 youth workers, and during the summer there are 24 on two separate work crews.

Many more applied for Project Payback, but didn't make the cut. Initial interviews helped determine if each youth would benefit from the program.

'We teach them basic work skills,' Hall said, 'how to get a job, how to keep a job, how to behave on a work site, basic construction skills and work ethic.

'We're trying to build up their lives, because they're helping us with our conservation projects.'

Hall supervises the project with the help of four crew leaders.

The youth workers also are eligible for college credits by completing their commitment to the work program. Credits are available at Clackamas Community College.

This is on-the-job training, Hall said, with crews planning their goals and learning work skills from experienced workers.

Crew leaders, who have a lot of training before beginning work, talk with the youth workers often and hold them accountable. They also do not hesitate to redirect them when needed.

Hall says the positive feedback the youths receive helps them 'come out of their shells and develop.'

At the end of each day, crew leaders talk individually with those who need positive feedback as well as with those who need some advice about how to improve their work ethic and become more employable.

'If I had a company that needed employees,' Hall said, 'I'd hire several of these kids above most other people because I've seen how they've developed and the work ethic they've developed and their inter-relational skills.'

The youths selected for Project Payback are basically good kids who have made one poor choice. Hall's crewleaders and the work ethic they mentor is designed to change the kids' lives.

'The training we get from the Juvenile Department is all based on the model of restorative justice,' Hall said. 'We're trying to restore these kids back as responsible citizens of the community.

'Most of the kids we work with are not repeat offenders or continual problems. A lot of them are just like every high school student you'll meet who has done something dumb - and they got caught.'

Sam got caught, but over a two-year period he was able to work in Project Payback and even the score.

It wasn't easy for him, because his mother was fighting cancer, and Sam had to spend his weekends and summers working off his debt to society.

But he has graduated from Sandy High School, and has a full-time job so he can buy things for himself and help his mother make the rent payments.

Hall is familiar with this story because the boy's mother called him recently to give him an update on her son.

'(Sam) was a very good kid who did something stupid and owed quite a bit of restitution,' Hall said.

'His mom called to tell me (Sam) told her he was very grateful for what happened (in Project Payback). This is one of our (local) success stories, and his mom called me to say he had turned his life around.'