Thirteen years ago, Mark Drake saw some kids selling drugs on a street corner. He wanted better for them, so he approached the young men and asked them why they were dealing dope. When they said they wanted money for clothes like their peers, he had an idea.
He started a program called Summer Training for At Risk Teens, or START. The program is intended to give teenagers and young adults an opportunity to work during the summer instead of wasting time or getting into trouble.
Every summer since, Drake has put the children to work at places like the Animal Services shelter or the maintenance departments of local schools. Students are compelled to open bank accounts and save some of their money so they can spend it on clothes, school supplies and other necessities.
About 35 children participated in the program last year. This year Drake has circulated 100 applications, hoping to gather at least 50 kids for employment.
As the program grows, however, Drake has found that budget cuts have affected more than government employees and services. Institutions such as the Sheriff's Office and County Commission, which used to set aside money to hire young people during the summer, can no longer afford to do so.
"I'm worried that I might not have enough jobs to pass on to the children," he said.
At the same time, the dour economic conditions have made it increasingly important to reach out to at-risk youth, Drake said.
Several former participants said the START program was highly beneficial to them. They said it taught them to become responsible and made them more aware of what it takes to hold down a job.
"It gave me a taste of life before life," said Henry Waddy, who added that the program helped prepare him for a job at Walmart, where he has been for the past eight years. "(Drake) wanted to see if I could succeed."
Drake's initiative isn't the only summer program for young people that has felt the effect of the economy.
The Summer Break Enrichment Program, run by Hernando County NAACP president Paul Douglas, has seen its funding reduced. Grant money provided by the state Department of Children and Families covered the costs of an administrator, employees and food for children, among other things.
Douglas said the program needed $94,000; the loss of grant money leaves the 10-week program with less than $10,000.
He is now seeking other sources of money.
Drake's program is trying to raise more than $65,000 to provide his students with part-time employment.
Douglas expressed concern at the effect that budget cuts are having on programs intended to keep children off the streets during the summer, especially in the wake of the announcement of plans to close several local parks.
"These kids are just out there," he said. "I don't know what we can do about it."