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Agency helping youths get lives together

Mike Polchowski started skipping school in the sixth grade.

The next year, he spent more than 100 school days in the woods near his Brookridge home or just walking around until it was time to go home.

When Polchowski did go to school, it was just to hang out with his friends.

By the time he was in eighth grade, the School Board had given him a choice: seek counseling at Youth and Family Services or take his chances with a judge.

He chose counseling.

"Now I have to go to school or else they can take me back in front of the judge," Polchowski, 15, said. "It's really not even a question anymore."

But Kathleen Graber, a director with Youth and Family Services, said getting children ages 6 through 18 back in school is only a part of the solution. The rest involves family support and decisionmaking skills.

"We teach them to make good choices," she said. "If they've made mistakes in the past, they have to learn how to let it go and and go on with their lives."

Graber said her five-county district helps about 1,000 children, including about 350 in Hernando County. That is quite a caseload for Hernando's counselors: one full-time and one part-time.

"Hernando really bears the brunt of the problem, it seems," she said. "The counselors have to be very creative in finding resources for their kids."

In Hernando County, Graber said, funding for Youth and Family Services comes from a variety of sources. The United Way contributes, and there is the occasional grant. For intervention cases such as Polchowski's, the organization has a contract with the state through the Department of Juvenile Justice.

The idea of forgiveness weighs heavily in the program, Graber said. Although anger can be healthy, many children in the program deal with rage, a much more destructive emotion, she said.

With an adult seriousness, Polchowski admits that a lot of things made him angry when he was younger. His parents divorced when he was a baby. Later, when his mother couldn't deal with his truancy, she sent him to live with his father.

"I think I was just frustrated at that period of my life," he said.

But in talking with his counselor, Polchowski said he has learned that taking personal responsibility doesn't have to mean feeling guilty.

"My counselor doesn't just tell me I'm a bad person," he said. "She listens to me and lets me explain myself."

By eighth grade, Polchowski had a lot to answer for. Two years of cutting class and slacking off had put him well behind his classmates. He flunked math that year but came back in summer school and made an A.

"It took me a while to get into the swing of things, but I got caught up," he said.

Now a ninth-grader at Central High School, Polchowski's best subject is English. It took summer school and tutoring sessions to make up for all the skipped classes, but he is reading Great Expectations with his classmates.

Polchowski's mother, Judy, said he also has improved at home.

"We can talk about stuff now," she said sitting in the dining room of the mobile home she shares with her son. "For a while, we couldn't talk. It was like there was a wall there."

Something Polchowski wouldn't have considered a few years ago is high school athletics. But with his wiry frame, he wants to try out for football and baseball next year.

"I didn't know what they were going to throw at me, so I didn't want to take on too much," he said. "I have to get my grades right before I take that on."

Something else he might not have considered was drawing, but when an art teacher told him he had talent last year, he took it to heart.

Graber said many of the children become guarded with their hopes and dreams, and counselors have to remember that vulnerability when children bristling with anger make it hard for anyone to love them.

"It's like if you stuck your hand out and somebody slapped it," she said. "You're not likely to stick it out again."

A bit shyly, Polchowski pulls out a portfolio filled with colored pencil drawings of outfits he has designed. Like figures in fashion magazines, the drawings are muted and dark.

"I guess they're pretty good," he said, his downcast eyes contrasting the faint smile on his lips.