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Boot camp, but home, too Youths find hope at O'Farrell center


In a well-mannered voice, a 17-year-old resident of the Thomas O'Farrell Youth Center detailed a typical day and described various programs as he led a group of guests on a tour of the place he has called home for nearly a year.

"This is kind of like a boot camp, only not as strict," said Sabin, the resident. "We have planned activities every night."

The Marriottsville center houses 40 youths committed to the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services and offers them a comprehensive program -- operated by North American Family Institute, a nonprofit human services agency -- to help them with the transition back into their communities.

Dalita Friend, the center's vocational coordinator, organized Friday's second annual Career Awareness Day, including vocational and educational displays and tours.

"We want to help our residents make educated decisions about their future careers," she said.

The youths, ages 13 to 18, attend classes, do their own laundry and housekeeping, and serve meals, said Sabin.

"Do you have many runaways?" asked Jeff Taylor, a Legal Aid attorney.

Sabin replied with an emphatic, "No."

"What would I be running from?" he said. "This is like home. These people are like family."

Sabin probably will leave the program in about a month, he said, "different from when I came in."

"I couldn't listen, and I had an authority problem when I came here. I have really benefited from the program, which builds up dignity and respect."

When a youth finishes the program, staff counselors follow his progress for another six months and continue to meet with him regularly. Sabin said he is confident he won't slip back into the patterns that caused his problems with juvenile authorities.

"I am going to do it right this time," he said. "Most of us are here because we hung out with the wrong friends. The ones we called nerds are all going to college, while the ones we hung out with are dying or getting locked up."

During the daylong event, O'Farrell residents had the opportunity to learn about various occupations, vocational programs and colleges.

Tfc. Damon Vinson, a state police trooper assigned to the Westminster barracks, gave Winston, 15, a personal preview of police work.

"I would like to be a state police officer," said Winston. "I could give something back to the community when I am older. The community has helped me a lot."

By community, Winston said he means the staff and other teen-age boys at the center. At the several daily meetings there, the young men greet each other courteously with, "Good day, community."

As he stood next to his police car surrounded by several residents, Trooper Vinson seemed to be the most popular man on the campus.

"Hey, what's your job really like?" asked one youth.

The officer launched into an enthusiastic job description.

"Most cops these kids run into treat them like dirt," he said. "I want to stress we are all not like that. Many of us try to treat everybody with kindness and respect."

The trooper said he relates to the boys' problems. His own past bears some similarity to theirs, he said.

"I was probably like a lot of these guys," he said. "I lived in the city and got into a lot of fights. But I learned life is what you make it."

Many youths at the center tested the Sykesville Volunteer Fire Department's equipment.

"We showed them rescue techniques, let them try on gear and see their hearts moving on an EKG [electro-cardiogram machine]," said Brett Pearce, a volunteer firefighter and emergency technician.

He drew the line at the emergency vehicle's radios.

"No playing with the radios, guys," he said. "They can hear you at the 911 center in Westminster."

The youth center calls crews from Sykesville to handle injuries. Firefighter Neil Robey said he found this trip gratifying.

"It's nice to see how well these boys are progressing," he said. "Our concern for their potential career opportunities makes them feel good."

Sebastian Mayfield, a sales representative and a lieutenant in the Army Reserve, urged the residents to "continue doing what you are doing, and success will be yours."

The day concluded with an assembly, at which Ms. Friend handed out certificates of appreciation to several employers who have hired the center's residents.

John Yates, O'Farrell's director, urged the youths to take opportunities found at the center into their futures.

"Regardless of where you come from or what you have done, the opportunity is here to make something of your life," he said.

Sabin and four friends added a lively note to the day's end with a rap song.

"Getting an education, getting employment, is the only place we should be concentrating," sang Sabin.

The audience easily picked up the beat and joined in the chorus.

"Sabin wrote that song and did the music himself," said Ms. Friend. "It was most impressive."

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