VASSAR — Boys at Pioneer Work and Learn Alternative Education in Vassar recently noticed Rickie L., 17, walking around the boys’ camp wearing something besides sweats.
Rickie, dressed in a shirt, tie and dress pants, was wearing his reward for building a professional portfolio.
“They were looking at me more as a positive leader and more of a positive and successful person,” Rickie said. “I felt like a man that’d be able to take care of his family any day.”
Pioneer Work and Learn Alternative Education, a joint effort with Vassar Public Schools and delinquency and substance abuse treatment program Wolverine Human Services, houses about 40 delinquent boys, ages 12 through 19, at what staff calls “Camp I.”
During their experience at Pioneer Work and Learn, residents earn class credits online, participate in a workstudy and are taught basic life skills.
“The goal is to give them skills to transition back into their community,” said special education teacher Michelle Atwood. “(Some) kids are dealing with various mental health issues.”
On March 8, 100+ Women Who Care, a charitable group that financially supports community organizations, presented a $10,500 grant to Camp I, which is the all-boys camp, for the purchase of enough dress shirts, pants and ties to give to two students every month for the next few years. Grant money will also go toward the purchase of a new washer and dryer, stove and refrigerator, which will be used to teach the boys life skills.
With help from Rickie, Atwood, and social worker Kathy Mroz put together a presentation to display to the 100+ women Jan. 14.
“We were one of three that presented that night,” Mroz said. “They selected us the first time … when they first said it, I was in disbelief.”
“The fact that they picked us is incredible,” Atwood added.
Last week, each of the 105 women wrote a $100 check to award the boys camp.
“To give a $100 doesn’t break the bank but when 100 women each put in $100, it makes a difference,” Mroz said.
She added that Rickie has stayed at the boys camp for about a year and his time is up; Wolverine Human Services is already arranging his placement in independent living or foster care.
“I think this place is a place where I can be able to learn from my mistakes that I have made in the past and correct them so all my charges will be dropped and when I do leave here, I can be able to maintain a healthy family and be able to have jobs so I can be able to support my family,” Rickie said.
During his stay, Atwood said Rickie has earned about six class credits and he’s participated in some form of work study, including kitchen duty.
“Someday I want to work in the NFL, but my back up plan is to be a mechanical engineer.”
In the meantime, Atwood said she tries to help students plan for a more realistic starting point, such as working in landscaping or the fast food industry.
Tuscola County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Reene said being successful with a juvenile criminal record is much easier than building a career with an adult criminal record.
“The beauty of it is, they’re not adult convictions … and because of that, they’re not nearly as far behind the eight ball as you are otherwise,” Reene said. “Young offenders have a chance to complete a probationary term and they have to take advantage of it.”
Mroz said most students at the camp have been put at a disadvantage because of their limited background.
“We don’t know the situations they came from,” she said. “It might seem extreme to turn to violence or drugs, but if that’s all they’ve known for their whole life, they’re kind of at a disadvantage.”
She added that several students in and out of foster care have had limited experience at home and have not been taught basic life skills.
Which is why camp staff teach students how to obtain a driver’s license, how to care for a child, how to budget finances, how to get a job and how to run a home.
To receive a shirt, tie and dress pants for his first job interview, Rickie was asked to fill out a job application, write a cover letter, create a resume, participate in a mock interview and complete a portfolio.
Atwood said providing students with a professional outfit might take away at least one obstacle holding students back from obtaining a job.
“It’s so empowering for them,” she said. “The way they look and how they feel about themselves and that’s basically what we want to tell them: ‘We believe in you, you can do this, you can get a job’ … At least that’s one more obstacle they don’t have to worry about.”
As soon as other students saw Rickie in his shirt and tie, they were curious about how to earn their own.
“It’s really been motivating them,” Atwood said.
Reene said anytime the community is granted resources to benefit youth, the money is well spent.
“You want to prevent things from getting worse and create opportunities,” Reene said.
Beth Waldon is a staff writer for The Advertiser and can be reached at email@example.com