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Teaching Teen-agers Life Skills

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Sept. 20, 1996 – Setting up programs to help teen-agers cope with life in the 1990s, withstand peer pressure, get through school and find jobs is challenging.

Ask any military community official whose proposal won DoD's Model Communities for Families and Children contest.

About 50 officials from the 20 winning programs attended a technical assistance seminar recently in Arlington, Va. They talked about their programs' progress and lessons learned since they won financial support from the Pentagon in 1994.

DoD awarded $6.4 million in 1994 to fund the new programs for three years. DoD officials created the incentive award program after community commanders voiced concern about growing gang violence, juvenile misconduct, drug and alcohol abuse and other issues affecting DoD's 1.4 million children. Communities gained startup money, and DoD gained a source of information to further develop department policy and services.

The Community Youth Enhancement Program at Marine Corps Air Station Tustin, Calif., is one winner. The Tustin initiative illustrates why youth programs are needed, presents youth issues military communities face and demonstrates grass roots solutions developed to deal with them.

Tustin, a four-square mile base originally designed for blimps, is home to Marine Aircraft Group 16, the Marine Corps' largest aircraft group. More than 4,000 active duty Marines work on base, and more than 3,800 family members, including nearly 620 youths ages 6 to 18, live in base quarters. Another 900 military youth live with their families off base.

Unlike many installations located in somewhat isolated rural areas, the station is located in densely populated, suburban Orange County, Calif., between Irvine to the south and Santa Ana to the north. The geographic site directly affects military families living there, according to Col. Tom A. Caughlan, station commander. The Marine base is sandwiched between America's "haves" and "have nots."

Irvine, Caughlan said, is one of America's richest and safest communities. "The median housing price is $350,000 to $400,000 for a tract home," he said. Santa Ana, on the other hand, is predominately poor and has an extremely high rate of violent crime. "It has one of the highest gang murder rates in the country," Caughlan said, "and one of the highest incidence of gang violence in the county."

According to local law enforcement officials, 14 gangs with about 300 members are active in the city of Tustin. The school district reports most teens in the community are sexually active by age 16. About 75 percent of the teens use alcohol or other drugs regularly. One out of seven high school-age women becomes pregnant, and nearly 200 students drop out of high school each year.

Local Marine Corps officials formed a partnership with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Tustin to win DoD funding for their Community Youth Enhancement Program. "We wanted access to the civilian community so our military kids get off base, and we wanted to be able to bring the civilian community on base to get to know our kids a little more, Caughlan said.

They chose the Boys and Girls Clubs because they are "a recognized, in-place entity with an established program and professional, long-term leadership," Caughlan said. "We found that because the Boys and Girls Clubs are name brand, they're known. Many parents had a positive experience in their youth with the clubs."

The military part of the program team includes a staff sergeant who works on the program as an additional duty and a base integration council. Three tenets of the Marine Corps' child development program serve as the foundation: development, education and recreation. The program complements existing youth programs such as the Morale, Welfare and Recreation youth program, two base child development centers, a New Parent Support Program and Family In-Care. The goal was for all the youth service agencies to work together without competition, Caughlan said.

The program got rolling with the grant from DoD and grants from the Boys and Girls Clubs. "One of the things the Boys and Girls Clubs measure themselves on is their ability to acquire additional funding through grants ... Because we went with them, we were able to leverage [$175,000 from DoD] and about six months later, we had another $75,000 they were able to obtain. In addition, because they are a nonprofit entity, they can go out in the town and solicit. So if the club needs things, they can go out and get computers, furniture, carpets. They can get money."

The program is housed in a former officers club refurbished with some excess furniture and a lot of what the Marines call sweat equity. "We're talking home improvement here," Caughlan said. "We're talking doing it yourself. We bought the paint, drywall, tile, and some Marines volunteered. They had a pretty good facility in about nothing flat."

Getting the program up and running was difficult at first due to personnel turnover, Caughlan said. "This is a very personality-dependent program. You have to have the right people to run it. The first person was hired away. The second found it too difficult to deal with youth, in spite of a masters degree in youth recreation."

Things picked up when the program got a new director who came in with a long track record of success in Boys and Girls Clubs. The Boys and Girls Club provided the director and an events coordinator, and the federal Job Training Program Act provided college students as no-cost summer supervisors.

The program also had to overcome a perception of competition among the various base youth programs. This was solved by starting a youth council which meets frequently. Each base youth service organization has a seat and the council coordinates all base youth activities are coordinated.

"The first thing the Boys and Girls Clubs did was put a basketball league together," Caughlan said. "We wanted to have an immediate-win program that would get name recognition and publicize the good news. We got youth teams together that won the local Boys and Girls Club league." That put the new program on the map, he said.

What started with a basketball league soon grew to include leadership, employment and computer training. Programs are now offered in drug awareness, quitting smoking, as well as pen pals, field trips and sporting events. The USO donates tickets for a van load of youth to go to pro hockey or pro basketball games. Youth learn about agriculture working at their own garden at the club and through contact at a leased farm on base. Attendance at evening and afternoon programs jumped from an initial 10 to 20 per day to 40 to 60 per day.

Young people like the walk-in center, and parents like the quality of the program, Caughlan said. "They find that when the kids go to the club, they spend their time usefully. They usually improve whatever skills they want to improve. We have a homework area where kids can go to be quiet. We have computers in case parents don't have a computer at home and schools are pushing students to provide typed homework."

DoD funding for the 20 Model Communities programs runs out after the first three years. To keep the programs going, local officials need to gain financial support from commanders and community leaders by demonstrating the value of their programs. Tustin has already learned how to acquire more funding and how to prove it is money well spent.

"Another benefit of working with the Boys and Girls Clubs," Caughlan said, "is they have their own requirements for measurable outcomes that meet DoD's requirements." According to base officials, the Tustin program is making a difference. Drug-related youth crime dropped to zero on base so far this year. There were eight incidents last year. Assault by juveniles has decreased by 50 percent, and crimes against property have remained unchanged while neighboring cities had a huge increase.

Plans for the future include to moving to a new, larger clubhouse and adding a program to help youth find jobs, Caughlan said. "We're confident we'll be able to secure funding to keep the program running."

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