Second chances

Kids who get in trouble with the law can skip the ticket through the Volunteer Center

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Unlike some of the Hindu icons she may have on display at the Multicultural Center at Percy Julian Middle School, Lynn Allen never has enough hands to complete all her tasks.

So this year, when the busy educator began planning the annual Ethnic Festival at Whittier Elementary School, she called Susan Stearns at the Volunteer Center for help.

Instead of sending Allen the usual suspects, the well-connected volunteer coordinator assigned students from the agency's Time program, a long-standing court diversion program that enables young people with minor offenses to be mentored while doing community service locally. With open arms and enthusiasm, Allen received her court-appointed volunteers, putting them to work in the coolest room in the district, she says.

"We have so much stuff to do in our resource center," says the administrator for Multicultural Education for District 97, "and these kids were fantastic."

One volunteer organized and re-boxed artifacts. Another photographed artifacts and affixed the pictures to boxes for easier identification of what's inside. This fall, Allen hopes to train a few Time volunteers as Internet researchers and docents, who could go beyond their commitment and choose to be guides for curriculum night and open houses, she says.

Time in

Since its inception in 1991, the goal of Time has been to guard against repeat offenses by kids who get in trouble once or twice. These kids get the opportunity to do 25 hours of community service at a local agency or organization rather than going to court, says Sergeant William Rygh of Oak Park Police Youth Services.

After receiving a referral from local law enforcement and a mental health assessment from Family Services and Mental Health Center of Oak Park and River Forest for a youth offender, Stearns works with potential placement centers, which have included the Oak Park Public Library, the Park District of Oak Park, the Multicultural Center at Percy Julian Middle School, and local churches and synagogues.

The Time program also includes the Volunteer Center's Education to Nullify Usage by First-Timers classes, Youth Connect mentoring activities and, for kids who have violated ordinances, Positive Connections, a 10-hour service program. Abby Schmelling, executive director of the Volunteer Center, says that every month about 15 to 20 teenagers 13 to 17 complete their remanded community service, instead of paying a fine, through Time.

"For parents who say it would never be my kids because they are honor students, it is the honor students who are usually the same juveniles who might be using cannabis, alcohol and getting caught with substances at parties, or oftentimes breaking curfew," says Sergeant Rygh. "We know that these aren't bad kids, and we really don't want to send them to the juvenile court system, so we give them an alternative program, which is Time."

In recent years, the Time program has been made available to the adjudication system in Oak Park. If a student gets a curfew ticket, for example, and the case goes to court, the administrative hearing judge has the option to grant a sentence of community service, rather than a fine, indicating that the action is serious and the youth will receive consequences for his or her mistake, Sergeant Rygh says.

-Deb Quantock McCarey

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