For troubled youths, community intervention program was the right Choice


Keyunnia, 13, says she's back in school because of it. Nichole, 15, says she's stopped fighting, although her friends reacted skeptically to this assertion. Shelton, 17, says he no longer stays out all night to play cards.

The three were among 40 youngsters enrolled in Choice, a community-based intervention program for juvenile offenders and other troubled youths, who came out in the rain yesterday morning to plant trees and shrubs around the organization's headquarters in Cherry Hill.

The volunteer work is one part of Choice, which was organized 2 1/2 years ago by Mark K. Shriver. It is supported by the University of Maryland Baltimore County, which supplies tutors and volunteers. The program monitors children aged 10 to 17 in their homes and schools and relies on a cadre of caseworkers on call 24 hours a day.

"At first they made me mad. Now I like it," said Shelton, explaining that Choice officials knocked on his door every morning to get him to go to school. He completes the program Monday. "I'm relieved," he said, adding that in two months he expects to finish his GED. "I won't have somebody looking over my back."

Yesterday's downpour did not stop several hundred people, including area residents and volunteers for Choice, from joining the activities. As might be expected of a group of children who at times worked knee-deep in water and dirt, a mud fight erupted on the sidelines.

"We're too dirty, we don't need no pictures right now," one digger called out to a photographer who arrived just ahead of Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

"It isn't the standard procedure," the governor said of Mr. Shriver's program. "All of us should take a lesson from this."

Choice claims a "50 percent reduction" in the type of problems that brought children to the program in the first place, usually as the result of court or state agency referrals. Some children are visited by counselors as often as nine times a day.

"They come looking for you," said one participant, who said her school nurse got her enrolled in the program after she got into fights at school. Several youngsters said yesterday the highlight of the program is weekend "recs" -- recreational activities including ice skating, bowling, and movies. After intense supervision for four to six months, those who finish the program are linked to a mentor who calls them several times a week for 12 to 14 months."It's positive reinforcement," said Bobby Richardson, 23, a UMBC graduate who supervises six caseworkers in the program. Choice served 69 children during the eight months ending June 30. Most were referred by the state Department of Juvenile Services and had been in court at least once for offenses ranging from truancy to car theft and burglary.

Instead of an hour in an office, "we see our kids every day in their homes," said Mr. Shriver, 26, the program's founder. "By being so intensive, you find out what the problems are." A host of volunteers, including landscape artists, local businesses and representatives of the Orioles, were part of yesterday's effort. Also attending were Mr. Shriver's parents, R. Sargent Shriver and Eunice Kennedy Shriver.

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