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Her job: Giving dignity to kids

There seems little doubt that Jenny Stone was qualified to run a program for young people with problems.

Having raised 12 children of her own, the 44-year-old Stone is well-versed in the nuances of nurturing.

"I love kids," she said. "I always wanted a dozen of them."

She got that dozen after blending her own four children with her husband Cliff's seven. Add to that the adoption last year of a young man with severe emotional problems, "and we had an even dozen," she said.

Now the children Stone nurtures are young people in trouble with drugs, alcohol and the law.

As director of the Youth Program for the Agency for Community Treatment Services, Stone is in charge of an array of services for young people in need.

The community treatment program provides aid for people fighting substance abuse, counseling and housing for youthful offenders and shelter for the homeless.

More than half of the agency's budget comes from the state. The rest comes from the city, the county, contributions and fees.

The Hillsborough Alternative Residential Program is the most recent program to come under the agency's umbrella. Until last year the halfway house in Seffner was run by the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services. But allegations of abuse prompted officials to remove it from that agency, Stone said.

"We took a risk," she said. "We put our reputation on the line and put our souls into the program."

Participants in the program are youths and young men, ranging in age from 12 to 18, who have been charged with violent crimes ranging from car theft to rape and murder. They spend nine months in the residential treatment program where they receive counseling and take part in academic and vocational programs.

"This is the population nobody wants," said ACTS spokeswoman Pat Hardie. "These kids are on their way to jail."

The program celebrated its first anniversary in April. Stone says the year was a success.

"We saw immediate changes in behavior," she said "They have insight and they learn from their experiences."

After completing the program, some of the youths will return to their families and others may go to other group homes, Stone said.

"We give them dignity," she said. "We give them confidence and self-esteem."

With a degree in psychology from the University of California-Berkeley, Stone has seen the spectrum of social services from geriatrics to youthful offenders. And even though her work now is more administrative than in earlier days, she said she hasn't forgotten why she's there.

"I know the name of every kid in the program," she said, "and the backgrounds of most."