The young men walked into the room in an orderly fashion, firmly shaking the hand of each guest at Youth Environmental Services.
They welcomed speakers to their residential facility south of Wimauma with thunderous applause. No golf claps here. They responded to questions in unison, punctuating each answer with "sir" or "ma'am."
They are, by definition, juvenile offenders, at-risk kids, bad apples. But as I watched them interact with the guests and each other, none of those labels seemed to apply. They were quiet, humble and polite. They were hopeful, now that a court has granted them a chance to take their lives in a new direction.
"They want discipline and structure," Sirrnest Webster, executive director, explains. "They just don't ask for it."
On this morning, members of Sheriff David Gee's Hispanic Advisory Council have come bearing gifts. Council president Tony Morejon noted that the kids, who can't go home for Christmas, can be forgotten during the holidays. Each of the 33 kids received a pair of shirts and a sign that someone cares.
Council members also received something.
"We're glad we got a chance to shake your hand, look you in the eye and see people who are changing their lives," Morejon tells them.
The program, part of Associated Marine Institutes, boasts of an 83 percent success rate with its young charges. The youths live in two meticulous dorms: sheets tucked, beds made, floors swept.
The emphasis on cleanliness is part of the program's life skills component. Meeting expectations, accountability and peer counseling also are program staples.
During the day, they take classes ranging from English and history to computers, science and art.
Unlike other juvenile programs that have a staff member to keep the peace and a teacher to guide the lesson, each YES staffer has dual roles. The approach fosters a higher degree of respect.
Athletics also play a key role. They work out every day, and twice a year they compete against kids from other Associated Marine facilities in a mini-Olympics. Two 7-foot trophies underscore their most recent successes at the games.
Each student sets goals, with the cooperation of his parents and family, and many work toward completing their high school education.
Most of the kids stay an average of about seven months, but Webster notes that the program tracks progress, not time.
He doesn't just send kids home, he sends them home with the necessary tools for success.
Even some of the more model students have been held back because they didn't meet certain criteria.
Ask one of the kids about the program, and they quickly say they are respected by the staff.
"I was in a different juvenile program, and they didn't care if you got out or not," said Sam, 16. "They were just there for a paycheck. The staff here is here to help us."
Webster, who has been with the program since 1997, brings a contagious enthusiasm to the job. As he travels each day to this enclave — it's on a back road off of another back road — he's not going to work, he's continuing his mission. What keeps him going?
"The power of prayer and having zeal," Webster says with an easy smile. "I can't help but help. It's about saving lives.
"We were created to do good things. Yes, life's a journey, but God created us to do good things."
Two of those good things appear to be a pair of program members who are close to going home.
In each, you sense a refreshing maturity and a beaming optimism.
Matthew has his sights set on being a mechanic, while Andrew will attend college and start on a pre-med track.
In the interim, he hopes to start his own Web site design business.
Perhaps Morejon said it best, when he told the group, "You'll remember this place. You'll remember these people because they made a difference in your lives."
It's a difference they will appreciate, and it's a difference we should champion. Youth Environmental Services not only redefines lives, but in a small way, it's redefining our society.
That's all I'm saying.
Ernest Hooper also writes a column for the Tampa Bay section. Reach him at [email protected] or 226-3406.