WIMAUMA – Some kids need extra help to set them on the right path in life. They get in trouble with the law and could become career offenders without organizations like AMIkids.
The Tampa-based, nationwide nonprofit group gives youngsters court-ordered into its program the opportunity to transform themselves into responsible adults.
“Rehabilitation is our main mission,” said Joe Chestnut, executive director of AMIkids-YES, a residential program for boys ages 14 to 18 in Wimauma. “The goal is for them to become tax-paying, productive members of society.”
AMIkids-YES – formerly known as Youth Environmental Services – is a fully accredited, Hillsborough County alternative high school. Through direct supervision, structured scheduling, positive reinforcement and behavior modification, trained and certified professionals help each teen to think and act in more constructive ways. Self-discipline and self-esteem are built into lifelong habits.
According AMIkids-YES research, students who come to the program have an average of 11 arrests, usually a mix of misdemeanors and felonies. They’re behind in their school work and their reading and math skills are well below average. Most have a history of substance abuse and a fundamental distrust of adults and authority.
They’re committed by judges all over the state but most are sent from courts in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Polk counties.
“Our job is to separate them from their troubles pasts,” Chestnut said. “The moment they arrive Derwin James, our director of operations, takes them through orientation. We set rules and expectations from day one.”
AMIkids-Yes teens are taught traditional school subjects and receive experiential education, where they learn math through scuba diving, navigation by boating or team building through sports, rock climbing or canoeing.
“Their whole day is structured from the time they get up until the time they go to bed,” Chestnut said, adding that after school they participate in physical education, weight lifting, basketball, volleyball and the like. “After dinner they get peer counseling where they are taught to recognize the impact of crime on their communities, families and themselves and how they can give back.”
For example, the teens are able do that through community service projects like helping out the Good Samaritan Mission with its organic garden and various other projects.
Quiet time before bed is enforced, during which the teens do homework, study the Bible, read and write letters. Once a week they’re permitted to call their parents.
The results are worth it. Nearly 100 percent of the students complete the program and more than 80 percent don’t commit crimes after leaving.
L. Kerney (first name withheld), 16, came to the program almost five months ago for possession of cocaine with intent to sell. He was committed for six to nine months, depending on his behavior and has done so well he now has about a month left on his sentence
“When I first got here, I had an attitude and didn’t care about anyone or anything,” he said. “In the program I’ve learned many new things and about the person I really am. My family has seen my attitude and the way I carry myself change.”
Upon his release, the teen plans to return to high school, play sports and get a job.
“I’ll be living a new life as a new person,” he said.
If you’d like to learn more about the program or volunteer and partnership opportunities, the SouthShore Chamber of Commerce will have an 8 a.m. networking coffee Sept. 10 at the AMIkids-YES facility at 4337 Saffold Road, Wimauma. The public is invited. Tours will be provided, refreshments served and door prizes awarded. RSVP to Angel by emailing [email protected] or calling (813) 671-5213.
You can also learn more by visiting www.amikids.org.