When a teenage boy appears before Judge Dwaine Thomas in Juvenile Court in Monroe County, he is not aware that his unlawful activities might land him in work camp during the summer. In fact, recently, 12 boys cleaned toilets, cut weeds, dug ditches, emptied trash and provided other work at the Indian Boundary Recreation Area off the Cherahala Skyway as part of a week-long Juvenile Work Camp program.
“The camp is a mandatory consequence for the boys’ charges but also a team-building and leadership development experience,” said John Porter, an advocate with CASA Monroe, which works with abused and neglected kids as well as kids who are in court for being in trouble. Porter also served as part of the camp staff.
The ages of the boys at the camp ranged from 13 to 18, and they were either in high school or graduated but owed community service hours, court fees or had a violation of probation. The teenagers were selected by Judge Thomas, and the youth probation officers who work with him, from those who were charged with juvenile crimes or truancy.
“Putting up a 50-feet Army surplus tent was the first task, and it was hard to do,” said Porter, who added that everyone pitched in, including Judge Thomas.
Porter explained that each boy got a T-shirt and a pair of work boots and their job began on Monday morning in driving rain, which did not diminish the boys’ workload. He said that they helped the Park Service by digging drainage ditches and culverts and cutting trees for firewood. Another group helped the camp hosts in the camping area by cleaning toilets, emptying trash and cleaning up around the camp sites.
Boys’ attitudes change
“The boys came in on Sunday as ‘unhappy campers,’ but by Friday the kids were in a good mood and exchanging phone numbers with each other,” he said.
In addition to support by the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office, several people gave inspirational presentations to the boys. “The Loft,” a local church, provided lunches, as well as Hopewell Baptist Church. CASA’s Callie Borgialli and Tracy Staff from Camelot spoke on anger management and job interviews. A local veterans group provided each boy with a camp shirt, polo shirt, work boots and shorts. Scott Shapiro made each boy a leather belt and the Madisonville Intermediate School provided drinks and snacks.
“Without community help from these people and organizations, we could not have provided such a quality program,” said Mike Black, a local probation officer who coordinated the entire week’s details and agenda.
Judge draws praise
“I give a lot of kudos to Judge Thomas,” said Porter. “He came up with this idea three years ago and the first year, pretty much funded it himself.”
Porter also complimented Black on the excellent work he did putting the whole camp together.
“Not only did the judge give of his time and energy to make the camp a success, but his family came on Thursday night and prepared a fish fry for the boys, their families and everyone else involved,” said Porter. “That’s total commitment!”
Black said many of the boys took charge of their work and stood out as leaders during the week.
“They would work to make us proud,” he said. “And, they saw what it was like to become responsible young men during that week. They excelled and were rewarded at the end of the program.”