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Our House teaches life

As founder and executive director of Our House, Richard Bienvenue's recipe for running his residential program for troubled youths is relatively simple: Take some at-risk kids, teach them a trade, help them earn their high school diploma and all but guarantee them a job upon completion. What society gets as a result are some useful and productive young citizens.

"Our goals for them are to become taxpaying, upright citizens," he said, noting that the recidivism rate for youths in the 18-month program is 19 percent.

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"We give them a second chance since in their past so many adults have shortchanged them as children. We show them that it doesn't have to be that way for life."

The program, which serves 16 youths from ages 16 to 21, began in spring 1993 in Ellicott City. It moved in December to an old farm in Brookville in Montgomery County.

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The boys, who come from communities all over Maryland but mostly from Howard, Baltimore, Prince George's and Montgomery counties, are referred to the program by social workers, high schools and the court system in lieu of incarceration for petty crimes.

Bienvenue, 55, emphasizes that Our House is not a "lockdown" program. "A young man has to want to be here," he said. "Roughly 60 percent opt out of the program after the initial interview. They just don't want to enter after learning more about it."

And that's because, according to Bienvenue, Our House is a challenging program that requires a lot of effort from the youths it serves. A typical weekday begins at 6 a.m. and then the young men split into work crews and head to their projects.

Instead of watching television in the evenings, they attend educational classes to help them earn their General Educational Development (GED) diplomas. Lights out is at 10 p.m. sharp.

One evening each week is dedicated to life skills to help them learn to cope with the demands of adult life, and another evening is for group counseling sessions. Saturdays are dedicated to community service, leaving Sundays as their one "free" day.

"I wasn't used to [the schedule]," said Tuvaughn Williams, 24, a graduate of the program. A resident of Baltimore, he works as a carpenter. "I had to learn to structure myself to keep up with it."

Williams, who entered the program in 1997, said he became involved in Our House "off the street." For him, what made the program successful wasn't the structure or learning a trade or the education, although all of that was certainly important.

"What really made a difference was that [at Our House] there were people who care for you. Because they care, they have an influence that makes a difference for good."

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According to Williams, Our House helped him see his life from a different perspective. "They showed me I could have a positive life," he said.

When the youths leave the program, they have earned their GED, a carpentry certificate and a complete set of tools. "They're job-ready," Bienvenue said. "And they're virtually guaranteed a job."


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