Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Turning Teens Around: Hialeah's Early Prevention and Intervention Program

Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Turning Teens Around: Hialeah's Early Prevention and Intervention Program

Article excerpt

Forty teenagers rustle and squirm in a crowded classroom at Milander Park in Hialeah, Florida. They warily eye the Metro-Dade police officer who is speaking at the lectern. Officer Frank Mendieta breaks off from his presentation on traffic safety to ask the kids to introduce themselves.

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"And what do you like to do?" he asks three boys in the back row.

"I like to play basketball," the first one says. The other two nod their heads and repeat the exact same thing, causing Mendieta to laugh out loud, "I knew you were going to say that!" And slowly everyone starts to relax a little.

Educational experiences like this are what set Hialeah's Early Prevention and Intervention Youth Program (EPI) apart from other park service programs for teens. The eight-week program combines community service in the park system with classes, field trips, and other educational experiences. Troubled teens and those potentially headed for trouble are referred to the program by their schools, while a few others are there by court order. Students are assigned to a park or pool where they help answer the phones, keep score at games, tidy up the facility, set up fields for games, or even do some painting for three days each week. The community service hours count toward the local school system's volunteer service requirements for graduation. Two evenings a week the students gather at Milander Park for educational sessions presented by a variety of partners.

Hialeah is a low-rise but densely populated city of 233,500 just outside Miami. More than 92 percent of residents speak Spanish as their first language. In Dade County as whole, the high school graduation rate is just 64 percent. Some of the issues that get kids referred to EPI include petty theft, fighting in school, drug possession, and graffiti. Since 1992, more than 2,000 students have participated in the EPI program and there is currently a waiting list of more than 80 kids. The goals of the program are to:

* Provide accurate information on the dangers of drugs, gangs, breaking the law, and dropping out of school.

* Develop necessary life skills, such as communication, decision-making, resisting peer pressure, and controlling anger.

* Reduce the likelihood of criminal involvement.

* Improve school performance and attendance.

* Heighten self-esteem.

* Increase exposure to positive role models.

* Develop empathy and respect for the rights of others.

* Build personal responsibility.

Activities on the agenda for a recent eight-week session included educational presentations on homelessness, abstinence, gangs, narcotics, and decision making, self esteem, and anger management. Potential career options after high school were explored through tours of Florida International University and the George T. Baker Aviation School, as well as in presentations by the U.S. Army and Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts. The final mandatory activity in every session is a tour of the Dade County Jail.

"The program works," says Willie Sanchez, EPI program coordinator with the Hialeah Department of Parks and Recreation. "The kids are learning and getting a great experience here."

Even among the teens who have been in previous trouble with the law, 65-70 percent have had no further contact with law enforcement within 90 days of graduation. …

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