Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

CAMP AIMS TO HELP KIDS STEER CLEAR OF JAIL CELLS; Vision for Excellence Focuses on Building Good Character Traits

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

CAMP AIMS TO HELP KIDS STEER CLEAR OF JAIL CELLS; Vision for Excellence Focuses on Building Good Character Traits

Article excerpt

Byline: Dana Treen

Looking up from a public-access computer on the fourth floor of Jacksonville's downtown library last week, Timothy Thomas nodded toward a cluster of yellow shirts and wanted to know what was going on.

The boys in the shirts, all 9 to 14 years old in a Public Defender's Office initiative, were focused on a lecture on the storied Army units of post-Civil War America known as Buffalo Soldiers, made up of black men.

"That's wonderful," Thomas, 52, said. "I wish they had that when I was growing up. It might have kept me out of trouble."

The opportunity had passed for Thomas, who was at the library searching for job leads. He'd been out of state prison for two weeks after serving 15 years for dealing in stolen property.

"I never had a father figure," he said. "There was nobody there for me. So I went crazy."

For the third year, the program run by Public Defender Matt Shirk's office has been aimed at steering young boys away from the path Thomas took.

"We represent a lot of kids," Shirk said. In its first year there were about a dozen in the Vision for Excellence Summer Camp.

They came from all over Jacksonville and met in the basement of the old Public Defender's Office. The number doubled the second year and is at about 40 this year.

Thursday, about two dozen boys arrived at the Police Athletic League facility on Franklin Street in Jacksonville's Eastside. Because of the building's location, the program this year pinpointed the surrounding neighborhood. Participants were recruited by fliers and door-to-door contacts.

The camp's mantra is to keep kids of today from being clients of the Public Defender's Office in the future.

"We wanted to target kids who would really benefit," Shirk said.

At about $75 a week per child, paid for with grants including from the Children's Commission, plus $10 per week from each child's family, the youngsters in the five-week program have classes in math, science and reading taught by certified teachers, take field trips and are guided through a series of themed weeks.

Following weeks focused on the importance of education, community service and civil rights and duties, a segment last week on the juvenile justice system included a tour of the Duval County jail.

Deep inside the steel and concrete facility, 32-year-old inmate Christopher Gregory reminded the campers about where they stood.

"They are walls and they ain't got to let you out," he said.

And time does not pass easily.

"We have to fight in here all the time," Gregory said.

Officer Greg Fields called on a camper who had earlier proclaimed himself a scrapper. He stood the boy before Gregory, who stared down at the youngster impassively.

"Hit him," Fields said to the boy, standing to one side.

Tears began to stream down the boy's face. …

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