Courts - Tennessee Positive beginnings Camp for young offenders offers clean slate

By Chris Echegaray

The Tennessean

SMYRNA, Tenn. (AP) -- The screeching whistle jolts 21 boys out of their pre-dawn sleep. They climb out of their bunks, scramble to fix their beds and head downstairs for physical training at the Tennessee National Guard Armory in Smyrna.

In nearby barracks, 17 female teenagers are also scurrying at the start of the Positive Beginnings life skills camp, held by the YMCA Community Action Project.

The 5 a.m. wake-up is a reminder for Jordan Alexander, 14, of some of his misdeeds. He shouldn't have stolen those GPS devices from vehicles. He'd still be sleeping in his home in the J.C. Napier public housing development, where even the random gunfire doesn't wake him.

"I'm getting used to waking up this early, and I like the food," said Alexander, who was getting into trouble shortly after being recruited in the seventh grade by local Gangster Disciples. "But when we're done, I have to not get into trouble."

Positive Beginnings is a camp for youth whose offenses range from theft and assault to truancy and drug possession. It's an alternative to three to six months in a juvenile detention center. The two-week camp is the only one of its kind in this area that focuses on life skills, gang prevention and nutrition classes interspersed with military training.

Between 75 percent and 85 percent of the kids held in the city's juvenile detention center are gang members or profess some gang affiliation, officials have said. Many of the teens in camp are gang-affiliated, and nearly all were targeted by gangs for recruitment in their schools.

With growing youth and gang violence in Middle Tennessee, advocates have said there is a dearth of prevention programs.

"Programs like these can curb, and that's the word to use, curb violence and gangs," said Earl Jordan, an anti-violence advocate who works with the Y's program. "I don't think gangs or violence can be completely stopped."

Michael Check and Henry Smith, Y-CAP's executive and associate directors, respectively, set up the camp. They get dozens of Davidson County Juvenile Court referrals for their annual program. They are loath to call it a boot camp.

"We're trying to build them up and not break them down," Check said. "This camp would be full if we did it more than once a year. But funding is an issue for many programs."

They start looking at the files and try to whittle participants down to 40 or a few more. It's usually 20 boys and 20 girls, ranging in age from 12 to 17. When they arrive, they are given shorts and a T-shirt.

The National Guard donates bed space, their grounds and military instruction for a camp that costs about $420 per teen. The Y-CAP program pays for the program through fundraising campaigns.

The rules are clear. The campers cannot leave for two weeks; there are no phone calls home, and the schedule keeps them busy from 5:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. They are given notebooks so they can write home. Parents are encouraged to write, as well.

In the morning, Smith barks out the mantra that camp-goers memorize:

"I believe we will win. Life remains very simple. It provides us with hope and opportunity. If we give up, we automatically lose. Only if we dare to struggle, we dare to win."

Eighty-five percent of the teens in the program don't return to the juvenile court system, Smith said. The key is the yearlong follow-up with the teens, families and probation officers. They get access to family counselors and other social programs. If any of the teens don't show up for school or probation, Y-CAP staff track them down and find out the reasons. The program also helps former camp attendees in court to get their records expunged.

Published: Tue, Jun 29, 2010

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