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Less than a year ago, when Todd was 14, his best friend was a gun.

Since becoming interested in weapons, the Palm Harbor boy has been stabbed, shot at and jailed in a facility where he blocked the door with his bed so other boys wouldn't attack him.

One of Todd's housemates, Matt, got interested in stealing stereos from cars when he was 13. He soon graduated to taking entire vehicles. Four years and about 30 cars later, the St. Petersburg youth has been arrested for auto theft, burglary, carrying a concealed weapon and possession of alcohol.

Then there's 16-year-old Tavares, whose last brush with the law came when he grabbed a man by the throat, pressed a .45-caliber gun to his head and demanded his money. The man's screaming wife forced the Sarasota boy to run, but he was caught soon after.

Rotten apples by most accounts.

"The beauties," if you ask Robert Beaumont.

"Most of these kids are perfectly normal," says Beaumont, executive director of San Antonio Boys Village Inc., a private non-profit halfway house whose aim is "to turn these kids around so they don't go to jail again."

"Ninety-nine percent (of the youths) come from really dysfunctional families," he says. "If you and I came from where they came from, we'd be doing the same thing."

Part cheerleader, part disciplinarian, Beaumont is clearly fond of his charges. But, "beauties?"

"Well, what would you call them?" Beaumont asks.

Another chance

San Antonio Boys Village, a small conglomeration of buildings in East Pasco, is one of 17 halfway houses sprinkled throughout the state aimed at giving individual attention to juvenile delinquents convicted of certain crimes.

While there's considerable attention being paid in Pasco County to extraordinarily violent crimes committed by juveniles, particularly against elderly victims, none of the 24 residents at the Boys Village has been convicted of rape or murder.

Short of that, though, their crimes run the gamut.

Children sentenced to halfway houses are often placed in facilities outside their own county to put some space between them and their homes. That means Pasco delinquents are typically sent to neighboring Pinellas or Hillsborough County and vise versa.

At the Boys Village, there are no jail bars. The rural, open-air setting seems to laugh in the face of confinement, but the home's young residents aren't looking for humor.

They know that this could be their last chance to make a change, that the judge who sent them here might not be as forgiving next time. And they know their future depends wholly on their willingness to improve.

Beaumont and his staff help nudge the boys in that direction. The word "privilege" crops up time and time again.

"We have some things that make them want to keep their contracts, like 10 dirt bikes," Beaumont says. "Everything here is a privilege."

There is also the woods, a short drive from the village where the boys work and play. Sometimes it's hard to tell which is which, but that's the point.

"It's our feeling that if we get a kid in the woods, he builds something and feels good about it," says Beaumont. "A kid has to feel good about himself before he can do anything good for others."

In the woods are an assortment of obstacle courses that the boys build, then conquer.

Each "game" is part of a confidence-building course with rules that force the boys to work together. Without mutual support, they could never meet the objectives.

When boys are new to the program, they "won't even touch each other," much less help each other, Beaumont says. It doesn't take long for that to change; the boys soon are hooting and hollering as they jet over a pond on a rope or whiz down a 200-foot-long greased chute into the water below.

"They get a rush from that," Beaumont says. "Kids get banged up a little bit; that's good for them."

The Village has other activities they can work toward.

One of those is to work in the full-service nursery, something only about six boys can do.

Those who earn that privilege are paid minimum wage. Any restitution they owe to victims is deducted bit by bit in hopes of erasing that debt from their eventual freedom.

"We try to aim it at the older boys to give them some job skills and make them marketable when they get home. You've taken a kid who's been hanging in the streets. Here they have the ability to trade their skills for a paycheck," says Mark Edenfield, the program's horticultural coordinator.

"If they survive three or four months in the nursery, most any employer in this area would hire them," Edenfield says. "We don't cut them any slack."

Learning accountability

A main part of the program is to include the boys' families in counseling sessions to help all involved identify the source of the problem. Boys also earn the right to go home on certain weekends.

Besides being encouraged to interact with their families, the boys do various sorts of community-related jobs, giving them and area residents an interesting bond.

"We are totally committed to what we're doing here," Edenfield says. "I feel that we're a team here. We're going to finish what we start."

That attitude, prevalent among the village's staff, does not go unnoticed.

"What's good is that the people that work there care about children, that the community has interfaced with the program very well," says Pasco-Pinellas Circuit Judge Lynn Tepper, who has worked extensively with juveniles.

Dade City psychologist Dorothy Lekarczyk, contracted by the state to provide individual counseling, spends a lot of time "helping them be accountable for their actions."

Dian Ash, one of the village's board members, thinks the program has a substantially higher success rate at turning around young lives than most comparable state facilities because of its basic philosophy.

"We stress responsibility. They just have certain responsibilities that they have to fulfill," Ash says. "There's very few halfway houses that would have a greenhouse program and a woods program."

Paying for success

Perhaps the biggest obstacle faced by the program is one decried by most social service agencies: lack of money.

"We have the highest success rate in the state," Beaumont says, referring to the proportion of youths who turn their lives around and stay out of trouble. "The state averages 50 percent; we average 70 percent."

Because of that, Beaumont and his staff are critical of the $43 a day per resident the state gives the village, compared with the average $60 to comparable halfway houses.

Besides the state's $385,350 annual contribution, the village gets $97,500 from the Juvenile Welfare Board of Pinellas, $30,000 from Pasco County and $38,000 from United Way of Pasco and the Department of Nutrition Management. Another $10,000 comes from fund-raising.

Staff salaries were frozen during fiscal 1990-91, and the village operated with a $96,000 deficit.

Because of money problems, the village is selling 20 of its 36 acres "just to operate," Beaumont says.

He and his staff are hoping that community support increases; otherwise, the village's future will be in jeopardy.

"I just hope the Legislature comes through," he says. "Otherwise, I'm going to have to shut down because I can't continue to operate with inadequate funds."

College plans

Numbers aside, the program's success can be told by its young residents, most of whom praise the village for giving them something they've never had: a little self-respect.

"I'm rehabilitated," says Mark, a 15-year-old Port Richey boy who stole "whatever."

Mark, convicted of aggravated battery for shooting a girl in the leg, credits the program with helping the boys "come to terms" with their feelings.

"It helps you accept "No,' " he says. "It gives you respect."

Matt says the "controlled environment" was something he needed.

"It gave me a real big turnaround," he says. "Before I got here, I was just wild. When I get out of here, I want to get my GED and go to junior college."

Says Brian, 15, from Dunedin: "It has got me closer to my mom." Now he just wants "to get a little job and buy a car _ do it the right way."

Todd has decided to trade in a life of crime for one operating computers.

"They got me back interested in school," he said. "I've been involved in just about everything under the sun. Now I've actually got a chance again. I plan to finish high school and go to college. I've always wanted to go to college."

It's common sense that not every kid likes such a program and that every case won't be a success.

Cecil, a 17-year-old Clearwater boy, complains that the program is "too strict."

Fourteen-year-old Shawn of Tampa makes no promises.

"I'm going to try (to improve)," he said. "But I'm just at a young age."