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Young volunteers gain by giving back

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Before she arrived at the Chaplin Youth Center, Angelika Winters didn’t think beyond the next party. The only plans she made involved drugs and boys.

But five months after she entered the program for at-risk youth, Angelika wants to attend college and become a nurse.

She attributes the change of attitude to Chaplin, a residential center for at-risk teens, and specifically to a relatively new program there that pairs volunteer work with vocational training.

Transition coordinator Tanya Stephens developed the program, where teens do community service to earn opportunities to get certified in CPR, life-guarding, food safety and more. She based the program on Chaplin’s behavior modification approach, where the teens have to earn their rewards.

Teens have embraced the program, finding that they enjoy serving others.

“It makes me feel better about myself, giving back to other people,” said participant Tim Price, 14.

But Stephens encountered resistance when she first started the program a year ago, using a grant from the Duff McDuff Green Foundation.

Many area nonprofits were hesitant to allow the teens to volunteer.

“It was so frustrating,” Stephens said. “After a while, I would just say, ‘Look, I’ll pay you to let us come and serve.’”

She initially wanted to include fun outings—like a trip to Kings Dominion—in the program. But she had to use much of the program’s budget to do community service.

Stephens didn’t end up paying the nonprofits, but she did provide all of the supplies, so the agencies received completely free labor.

She also networked to find flexible nonprofits that were more willing to give the teens a chance.

Over the past year, about 50 youths have performed a variety of services, including planting trees with Tree Fredericksburg and cleaning river shorelines with Friends of the Rappahannock. They’ve also sorted donated food, landscaped yards, served food to the homeless and led monthly bingo games for the elderly and disabled.

In return for their efforts, they’re working on getting their master gardening certification. They’ve learned how to serve food safely, save lives, fix cars and fill out job applications and résumés.

Along the way, the teens are impressing the people they serve.

Mottiece Mansfield, director of events for Mill Park Terrace in Fredericksburg, raved about the teens, saying they were enthusiastic and gentle with the residents.

For about six years, youth at Chaplin have led bingo at Mill Park Terrace, an apartment complex for the elderly and disabled. Through the new program, the teens also have started delivering food to the residents and have plans to plant a community garden there.

The residents are looking forward to the garden’s bounty, Mansfield said. But the teens will reap the most benefits, said La’Quita Buffington, a probation officer with Stafford County’s court services unit.

Some of the teens on Buffington’s caseload end up in Chaplin, and she said the teens’ transformations are always stunning. And this pairing of community service and vocational training has helped the teens even more, she said.

“You can just see their confidence grow,” Buffington said. “What they’re getting here impacts their lives, and they can do things differently.”

That’s exactly the point, Stephens said, noting that similar programs have reduced the teens’ recidivism rate by 15 percent.

Angelika will leave Chaplin in May, and she hopes to be one of the program’s success stories.

“I’ve got my mind set on bigger and better things now,” Angelika said. 

Amy Umble: 540/735-1973


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