Advertisement
  1. News

Young offenders prepare for future by rewinding childhood

Published Sep. 4, 2015

WIMAUMA — The teens who live at the AMIkids Youth Environmental Services facility can learn first aid, CPR and lifeguarding. They can study information technology, get their certification and look for a job. They can even try to move up a grade in school or study for the GED.

But the most important thing they can learn, said executive director Joseph Chestnut, is how to be a child.

"You'd be surprised that a lot of these kids never had a chance to be a kid," he said. "They've been out on the streets."

That is why a juvenile judge sent them to the YES program, to spend six to eight months living and learning in an unsecured rehabilitation facility for boys ages 15 to 18.

The facility at 4337 Saffold Road is run by AMIkids Inc., a national nonprofit that works with about 5,000 juveniles across the country — 300 of them right here in the Tampa Bay region. The organization operates 43 programs across eight states and in the coming months plans to expand to a ninth state by opening in St. Louis.

The YES program gets funding from a $5 million, three-year U.S. Department of Labor grant that AMIkids received last year. This year, AMIkids was awarded a second $5 million grant, and officials said that money could be used to fund more vocational programs for children in Pasco and Pinellas counties.

"The basic intent of the whole thing is to get our kids jobs," said AMIkids president O.B. Stander.

Vocational training helps accomplish this, like the YES program's IT training course that will produce its first graduates in Wimauma this month. Twelve teens are scheduled to take their CompTIA A+ certification test, the ground-level certification needed to build a career in IT.

"The idea is to be able to get them an entry-level job in technology," said course instructor Will Gilford. "It's a daunting task."

The IT training program may be difficult, Gilford said, but giving them a goal to achieve can get the boys to start thinking about their futures.

"I would say they're a lot more open to the idea of careers," he said. "I saw them start putting together more of a game plan."

There are no high fences surrounding the campus, 30 minutes south of downtown Tampa. The 30 or so residents who live here at any given time aren't bound by barbed wire. The center is "staff secure," replacing guard towers with caring mentors, and chains with trust.

AMIkids executive vice president Mike Thornton said this layout didn't happen by accident. They wanted to create an environment where relationships between mentors and residents can grow.

"We let the kids know we care about them," Thornton said. "We're going to treat these kids like we treat our own kids."

To the staff, it's less a place for juveniles to serve their time and more like a boarding school that demands — and rewards — good behavior.

AMIkids does not disclose the last names or hometowns of its residents because of their ages. One of the residents, Kevin, came to the facility four months ago after he said he was caught with stolen property. He said he had no excuse for his actions; he knew what he did was wrong.

His teachers, he said, have inspired him to do better and earn his high school diploma. Only a few credits away from finishing, Kevin plans to get a job to pay for business school. He hopes to one day own a security company, a landscaping company and a barber shop.

Yes, he wants to own all three.

"It's a big learning experience," Kevin said of the YES program. "I've got three more months, and I'm pushing to get home as fast as I can."

The campus also offers substance abuse treatment programs for residents who committed drug-related crimes. Jessie, 14, has spent his three months on campus enrolled in "cannabis youth training." He said he has enjoyed working with the counselors and that he has learned how to avoid falling into the same patterns that landed him here in the first place.

And that, Stander said, is what can help these teens turn their lives around:

"To me," the AMIkids president said, "it's a window of opportunity."

Contact Shaker Samman at ssamman@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3394. Follow @shakersamman.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. A sign seen on the front door of Pom Pom’s Teahouse and Sandwicheria in March, after owner Tom Woodard stopped serving drinks with plastic straws. The St. Petersburg City Council voted 5-2 on Thursday night to ban single-use plastic straws. [CHRIS URSO  |  Times]
    The City Council tweaked its own ordinance banning single-use plastic straws, which is set to take effect on Jan. 1, 2020.
  2. Student activists with the March For Our Lives group, founded after the Feb. 2018 Parkland shooting, hold a banner that promotes their new "peace plan" to prevent gun violence, while demonstrating in the rotunda of the state capitol building in Tallahassee. Emily L. Mahoney | Times
    The 18-year-old student director of March for Our Lives Florida said school shootings are so common they are “not shocking” anymore.
  3. Steven Currall prepares to deliver an address during his investiture as the University of South Florida's seventh president Thursday at the Yuengling Center in Tampa. MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE  |  Times
    Though he started the job in July, Steve Currall is officially installed as president on his 137th day in office.
  4. Apollo Global Management has offered $130 per share for Tech Data's stock in an acquisition worth $5.4 billion. If regulators shareholders approve, the home-grown company will remain based in Pinellas County, where it employs 2,000 of its 14,000 workers. DIRK SHADD  |  Tampa Bay Times
    Private equity firms like Apollo create wealth for pension funds, financial institutions and individual investors by buying assets that typically are sold later at a profit.
  5. Some of Tampa Bay's largest companies are being sold or are up for sale. Times files and Bloomin' Brands
    Tech Data is just the latest in a growing list of public companies bought up by out-of-state firms.
  6. Gov. Ron DeSantis greets local officials at Dunedin High School on Oct. 7, 2019, part of a swing around the state to announce his plan to boost starting teacher pay in Florida to $47,500. He revealed a related teacher bonus plan on Nov. 14 in Vero Beach. MEGAN REEVES  |  Tampa Bay Times
    The new plan would replace the controversial Best and Brightest model that DeSantis had called confusing.
  7. The "#9pmroutine" is a core social media feature for the Pasco County Sheriff's Office. Now, the agency has a copyright on it. Facebook
    Copyrighting a key part of the agency’s social media presence isn’t meant to limit its reach, the office said, but rather to stop bad actors.
  8. USF student Gabriela Young is the owner of Earth and Ivory, an online jewelry business with items made out of clay.  [Special to the Times | Sarah Foster] SARAH FOSTER  |  Special to the Times | @sarahtheartiste
    Gabriela Young went from selling bracelets to friends to making clay wares for customers with her business, Earth and Ivory.
  9. Chief Veterinarian Mallory Offner examines a female rescue puppy at the Hillsborough County Pet Resource Center in Tampa. MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE  |  Times
    With 250 of the pooches ready for adoption, each potential puppy parent has a 1-in-4 shot at getting picked in today’s drawing.
  10. Eight vehicles were involved in a fiery and fatal crash late Wednesday that left two people dead and shut down northbound Interstate 75 bridging Hillsborough and Pasco counties, authorities said. The driver of the white van pictured above, George Pagan of Tampa, said he saw the semi-trailer truck, left, sliding sideways toward him in his rearview mirror before impact. Pasco Fire Rescue
    The chain-reaction crash that closed the northbound lanes near the Pasco-Hillsborough line started when a semi-trailer truck driver didn’t stop for traffic, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement