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Hernando Youth Initiative pools agencies' efforts

Bill D’Aiuto of the Florida Department of Children and Families speaks at the 2008 Summit for Youth in September.

Will Vragovic | Times

Bill D’Aiuto of the Florida Department of Children and Families speaks at the 2008 Summit for Youth in September.

BROOKSVILLE — A dozen or more agencies were hard at work on the same goal — steering teens in the right direction.

But for years they were barely talking to one another.

Despite a persistent high school dropout problem and graduation rates that left around 25 percent of students behind, there was little coordination on the complex factors that were pushing many teenagers to the margins.

All of that began to change in September, when representatives from almost every group dealing with young people — from schools and law enforcement to social service agencies — convened at the county's first Summit for Youth.

"You have all these agencies trying to head in the same direction," recalled Sheriff Richard Nugent. "Wouldn't it be great if we all had the same band leader?"

Weeks later, that meeting has taken on a life of its own. Issue groups are developing grant proposals, the second summit has been scheduled for Sept. 29, and officials are trying to figure out how to make sure that day of common purpose becomes a way of life in Hernando County.

It's called the Hernando Youth Initiative now. In many ways it resembles the Harlem Children's Zone, a multiagency alliance in New York that President-elect Obama has highlighted as a national example of effective collaboration.

But this one is homegrown. What began as a discussion at the Chamber of Commerce has become a soul-searching exploration of the ways in which a young teenager begins moving down the wrong path, said coordinator Tracy Echols.

"They come home; the parents are fighting," she said. "There's not enough food in the house. They haven't slept well. They get up, they go to school, they fall asleep, their grades are mediocre.

"They feel like a failure. They just don't see any hope," Echols added. "(But) if they sometimes get just a little nudge in the right direction, they're going to stay on track."

Already the groups have agreed that one issue — keeping kids in school — is paramount. Other issues like domestic violence and teen pregnancy are among the problems that cause students to drop out, she said.

There is also broad agreement that it really does take a village — or perhaps a county — to raise a child.

"In the past it's always been looked at as the responsibility of two groups, the parents and schools," said Jim Farrelly, executive director of the Early Learning Coalition of Pasco and Hernando Counties. "We need much more."

A former school superintendent, Farrelly said he's never seen such a rush of community enthusiasm and participation.

Bringing every agency together helps ensure that efforts aren't duplicated, and small contributions have a maximum impact, he said.

"A simple concept like community mentoring might save 10 kids a year," he added. "That's 10 lives."

Since the summit, agencies have begun looking at their work in new ways, said Debbie Andrews, executive director of the Dawn Center.

Domestic violence prevention is the core mission at her shelter for women and children. But the center has forged a new partnership with the Boys & Girls Club, and is developing a middle school curriculum that focuses on youth crime, she said.

The center has been full or over capacity for more than a year. With families under increasing stress and funding levels falling due to the economic downturn, now is the time for agencies to be sharing resources, Andrews said.

Brought together by necessity, many agencies that once regarded each other with suspicion are finding unexpected rewards.

"You find out that you had more in common than you thought," said Nugent. "Everyone sees it from their own perspective, but at the end of the day, the problems are the same. We'd really like to see this be successful."

Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

FAST FACTS

To get involved

The Hernando Youth Initiative has formed working groups on dropout prevention, substance abuse, domestic violence, teen pregnancy and child welfare. There are also volunteer opportunities in mentoring and grant writing. For more information, contact Tracy Echols at (352) 277-3322.

Hernando Youth Initiative pools agencies' efforts 12/30/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 30, 2008 7:16pm]
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