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Young offenders prepare for future by rewinding childhood

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 or (813) 226-3394. Follow @shakersamman.