Youths learning to build their lives at Our House

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

"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.

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."

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, with a union, private contractor or landscaper."

Since 1993, the participants have collectively logged almost 18,000 hours of community service on projects that range from collecting and distributing food for food banks to helping build homes for organizations such as Baltimore Cares and Habitat for Humanity.

Their most recent project was building a little girl's fantasy dollhouse for a raffle to raise funds for Casa of Maryland, a not-for-profit organization based in Montgomery County.

"We teach them that part of growing up is giving back," said Ron Brown, a carpentry instructor for Our House.

Other construction projects include renovating a community center in Wheaton and restoring a 200-year-old Federal-style farmhouse that has become Our House's headquarters.

The youths have also completed nearly 60 projects for people who are elderly or have disabilities in Howard County through a collaboration with the Aging in Place Initiative. Senior citizens can have repairs and modifications done to their homes that make the buildings safer and enhance their ability to function safely.

The biggest challenge to getting a project successfully completed is not the young men's behavior, despite their troubled backgrounds. Instead, it's their education level, Brown said.

"Most of the boys read on a fifth-grade level when they come into the program," Brown said. "A good 70 [percent] to 80 percent of them can't read a ruler. We have to start out with the very basics, teaching them about fractions so they can read a ruler, or what a 2-by-4 piece of lumber is, or how to find the center of something."

Brown says a typical client of Howard County's Aging in Place Initiative is elderly, probably a widow or woman living alone who has a disability, and who can't take care of her property. The common characteristic among all the clients is an intense desire to stay in their house rather than go to a nursing home.

Among the projects Our House work crews have completed for Aging In Place is to widen doors to allow for wheelchairs, build decks, and install ramps and grab bars near toilets and around showers.

"I have a book full of 'atta-boy' letters," Brown said. "I read them to the students. ... They've done dozens of these projects and [perform] community service each Saturday."

He added: "We made a lot of friends over the years."

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