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Service helps kids in trouble

A boy can now identify a dozen varieties of apples by sight. A girl learned to listen to nursing home residents. Youngsters learned responsibility by washing county trucks.

Juveniles may go into Pierce County's community service program grumbling, but they gain new skills, make connections, work with adult role models and learn the joy of being useful and appreciated, said social workers.

Juvenile justice worker Michelle Meinen tells of a girl assigned to assist a nursing home activities director.

"What (the girl) got out of it was learning to listen to people. She used to be the one who talked," said Meinen. "I think that was the first time in a long time that kid slowed down enough to listen to somebody else."

A boy who was assigned to work in an apple orchard proudly told her he can now identify 12 different kinds of apples just by their color, said Meinen.

"He knows his stuff," she said, just as proudly.

"They don't want to go initially, but once they get connected ... it's a lot of positive adult interaction," said Meinen.

"The goal is to give back to the community, but there are added benefits," agreed Kristina Boyd, the county's community service coordinator for juveniles.

The kids in the program have either been sentenced by the court to perform community service or opt for community service through pre-court agreements with prosecutors.

Their offenses range from shoplifting and disorderly conduct to more serious crimes. The youngsters are as young as 10 and as old as 17. They've been assigned to complete 20-100 hours of community service and usually given a year to do it.

While the sentence is punitive, the program is intended to benefit both the community and the youngster.

One of the most important skills the program teaches is accountability, said Boyd. She said it's important for the kids to take responsibility, to make amends, but they can also build relationships and learn job-related skills.

"The biggest benefit has been the skill building," agreed Meinen.

"We push them to find their own stuff, but they run it by us," said Boyd of the community service choices. "If it's something they would have done anyway, it's not approved."

River Falls kids in the program are often assigned to work at Treasures from the Heart, a second-hand store that benefits a hospice program. Other kids take on cleaning chores at the Human Services Department.

The program has an ongoing arrangement with Circle K Apple Orchard, said Boyd.

"They really bonded with Wilson Mills, the owner of the orchard," she said of the success kids have had there. "Parents commented on the kids' (improved) attitudes."

Tasks at the orchard have included cleaning sheds and helping adult workers prepare for markets and the annual Apple Fest held last weekend.

Since the community service work projects must be volunteer work, Mills figures the value of the kids' hours at minimum wage and gives apples worth that amount to area food shelves, said Boyd.

Last winter boys on community service were assigned to help wash county trucks twice a week.

"They really treated it like a job there," said Boyd of Highway Department workers' supervision of the boys, who were expected to punch a time clock and pitch in.

The regular workers were great role models, said Meinen. "It was a very positive thing."

The service program shows kids they can make a contribution, she said.

"It shows them they can affect the community, make a difference," agreed Boyd.

It also makes a difference in most of the kids. In the last fiscal year, she said, 80 percent of the youngsters in the program didn't reoffend while in community service.

Kids are also expected to attend school regularly and often to participate in some form of therapy, make restitution or participate in a restorative justice program.

For more information about providing a community service site and supervising a youngster in the program, call Boyd at 273-6766.