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New dorms rise at treatment center

(ran PW edition of PASCO TIMES)

When the boys look up, they see holes in the old blue buildings.

The ceilings are cracked, the floor tiles worn, and the toilets run long after they have been flushed.

But soon, the buildings will be gone.

The Eckerd Youth Challenge Program has started construction on two new dorms. The one-story, concrete-block buildings will rise on a wooded lot off Culbreath Road south of Brooksville.

The dorms, each 4,215 square feet, will house 40 teenagers and are expected to open next summer.

"We really are looking to create a much more modern setting that will be much more appropriate for the boys," said spokeswoman Janan Talafer.

The residential treatment program serves 50 boys, ages 13 to 18. Almost all have been convicted of felonies, including burglary, battery and vandalism. They are sent to Eckerd through the court system, as an alternative to prison, and stay for about eight months.

The students attend school, see counselors and work on behavioral and emotional problems.

In 1989, Eckerd set up a collection of blue trailers on land that is also home to Camp E-How-Kee, another program for troubled youth.

Eckerd officials thought they would be in Hernando County only temporarily and rented mobile homes to use as dorms and classrooms. But weeks turned into years, and then plans to move to Floral City fell through. So now Eckerd wants to update its campus as a permanent operation.

Director Christine Samuel said she hopes the $866,325 project will be the first phase in a five-year renovation of the campus.

"Your environment is extremely important," she said. "We do the best we can in terms of keeping it clean, but the new buildings will brighten up everything."

She said she hopes to add another 10 teens after the renovation is completed.

Judges across the state send teens to the program, run by Eckerd Youth Alternatives, a nonprofit organization that operates 39 programs, including wilderness camps and day treatment centers, in seven states. The local program receives money from the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice and other state agencies.

Eckerd Youth Challenge enrolls about 115 teens a year. Twelve months after students leave, 33 percent are going to school and working. About 20 percent are not attending school or working, and the rest are doing one or the other.

A 16-year-old, sent to the program for assaulting his teachers, sat at a desk on Friday, a yellow cloth slung over his shoulder, which indicated he had been named student of the month.

He said the campus needed a renovation. "The water don't stay warm," he said.

A 17-year-old who was sent to Eckerd after he broke into some cars and violated his probation said of the buildings: "They're grungy. And old. I won't be here to see the new ones, but they will be good for the place."

The new dorms will house all but 10 of the teens, who will stay in a newer trailer. Two of the current dorms will be torn down; other sleeping quarters will be converted into classrooms while renovations continue on the property.

Business manager Debra Whitaker said she does not have money to put new furniture in the dorms. Unless some funding arrives, the worn twin beds, 13 years old, will be carted into the new buildings.

She said anyone interested in donating furniture or money may call her at 799-5621.

_ Jamie Jones can be reached at 754-6114. Send e-mail to