MAXWELL:  Holding out hands of hope

8/23/1998- Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Zachary Knopick’s career as a petty criminal began when he stole a moped, a golf cart and a boat. All in the same day. He was 13 years old at the time.

Today, Zach, as he likes to be called, is a 16-year-old 10th-grader at Gulf High School in New Port Richey. His transformation from petty criminal to law-abiding high schooler had many twists and turns for him _ and disappointment and pain for his parents.

For his crimes, Zach was sentenced to serve 11 months at Eckerd Youth Alternatives Inc. in Clearwater, a halfway house for youthful offenders. There, instead of improving, Zach graduated to the next level of criminality.

He had been out of Eckerd Alternatives, under court-ordered community control, for about six weeks when he broke into a neighbor’s house and stole another moped. He sold the vehicle to another boy who also had been in trouble with the law several times.

Again, Zach stood before a judge, this time charged with violating the terms of his community control order, grand theft, burglary of a residence and dealing in stolen property. He was sentenced to serve six months at San Antonio Boys Village Inc. in San Antonio, Fla., a round-the-clock, private, non-profit residential treatment program housing 26 adolescent boys between ages 13 to 18.

The boys are adjudicated to the facility by the state Department of Juvenile Justice, where they spend an average of six months. For most of them, the Boys Village is their last stop. If they commit new crimes, they will be put behind bars and treated more severely.

Zach was released from the program on Aug. 10. His mother, Mary Marchisio, said that her son has changed.

“In the last three months that Zach was at the Boys Village, I really saw a great improvement in him,” Marchisio said. “I call him my “old Zach’ and my “new Zach.’ It’s like having my old Zach back, the one who was in the Boy Scouts, the one who was in Little League, the one who was always helping people. The newer Zach was always in trouble, never smiled or anything. During the last three months, he reverted back. He’s smiling. He’s helpful. He’s respectful. It has to do with what they did at the Boys Village.”

And she knows what the institution did.

“The boys have to earn the right to do everything at San Antonio Boys Village,” Marchisio said. “They have to earn the right to obtain a job, to come home every other weekend, to take field trips, to go fishing, to ride the mini bikes, to eat out. In the Eckerd program, everything was given to them. With the Boys Village, they put all of the responsibility on the boys. The staff tells the boys, “You’re here because of what you did. It’s not something that your mother forced you into doing. Your parents didn’t tell you to go out and do this.’ It made my son grow up.”

Much of society would have written off these boys years ago. But not Robert Beaumont, the program’s executive director. To him, they are not “bad boys” but “beauties.” He believes that all boys are born good. If they get off track, they can be saved in the right environment and with a staff that cares enough to treat them with dignity and firmness.

“Most of these kids are perfectly normal,” said Beaumont, who is part coach, disciplinarian and cheerleader. “Ninety-nine percent of them come from dysfunctional families. If you and I came from where they came from, we’d be doing the same thing.”

In addition to having committed crimes, many of the boys arrive with personal histories of having been sexually or physically abused and of having abused drugs or alcohol. All arrive with low self-esteem, and most believe that they will always be failures.

Beaumont, known as “Big Bob” to the boys, and his staff of teachers and counselors are clear about their mission: “preventing chronically delinquent boys from continuing their law-violating behavior and preventing them from further penetrating the juvenile system or even from entering the adult corrections system.”

That’s a tall order for sure, but Beaumont understands the challenge and long ago made transforming the lives of such boys his life work. The Boys Village celebrated its 25th anniversary Aug. 15, and is considered by many juvenile delinquency experts, including a spokeswoman for the state Department of Juvenile Justice, to be one of the best of Florida’s 55 public and privately contracted halfway houses.

Records show that for more than a decade, the Boys Village has remained one of the state’s most cost-effective halfway houses. It saves huge sums by buying second-hand materials and supplies. Unless specific expert skills are required, the staff and students do all maintenance and groundskeeping. And unlike most of the other treatment facilities, the Boys Village receives widespread support, such as food donations, professional services, volunteers of all kind, from the local community.

Even though the Boys Village, until recently, received less money per student with severe drug problems than other facilities _ $60 per day compared to $75 per day _ its success rate (boys not committing crimes after release) is about 70 percent, while the state average stands at about 50 percent.

What accounts for such success? No one knows for sure, but Beaumont said that the human touch makes the difference. The Boys Village is not a boot camp like the one in Bartow, where a 16-year-old Avon park boy hanged himself on Aug. 17. “We have no bars, no barbed wire and no physical punishments or restraints,” Beaumont said. “Our mantras are praise and rewards, hard work and fun.

“The boys need a lot of structure and positive things that motivate them. But we’re tough on them. We have zero tolerance for crime. We will call the sheriff or the state attorney if someone commits a crime in here. And nobody touches a teacher.”

Located on 12 acres in rugged eastern Pasco County, the Boys Village is a vast natural environment where the boys live in a dormitory and are required to attend six hours of classes each day in an accredited academic program _ the centerpiece of the institution. The boys get, for example, computer-assisted, individualized remediation in reading, math and language skills. Surveys show that the program improves their attitudes toward academic achievement, an asset that too often becomes a liability on the street.

The boys also roughhouse in the woods on 100 acres leased to the institution by nearby St. Leo Abby. Here, some of the program’s most important work occurs. Mainly from the inner city, many of the boys see the wilderness and smell fresh air for the first time. If they earn the right, they swim, canoe and boat, fish, romp in the woods and participate in the coveted Wilderness Minibike/Rope and Confidence Course, the only one of its kind in Florida. This program is essential because, for the first time, many of the boys are placed in settings where they must trust and bond with other boys, along with adults, for the first time in their lives.

When they first arrive, the boys will not touch one another in a caring manner, which means that initially they will not help another male, Beaumont said.

But the woods and the obstacles work their magic.

“It doesn’t take long for the boys to change,” Beaumont said. “They soon are hooting and hollering as they jet over a pond on a rope or whiz down a 200-foot greased chute into the water below. They get a rush from that. Kids get banged up a little bit. That’s good for them.”

And unlike other halfway houses that are all play _ watching television, playing basketball and card games and pumping iron _ and no work, San Antonio has a “learn to work” philosophy, Beaumont said. For minimum wage, if they earn the privilege, the boys maintain the grounds, help raise pigs and cattle and work in the kitchen.

The heart of the work program at the Boys Village is its full-service, professionally licensed plant nursery, where the boys learn general employability skills and specific vocational skills. Those who earn the right to work in the nursery are pretty much guaranteed jobs in area nurseries upon release.

The glue that holds the Boys Village together, Beaumont and others said, is the parent. In fact, all parents are required to be directly involved in the program during their son’s residence at the Village.

“We have found that parent involvement to be the most important aspect contributing to a client’s re-entry into the community,” Beaumont said. “This involvement also has a very significant effect on other children in the clients’ families.”

But for all of its good works, San Antonio Boys Village struggles financially to keep its doors open. Today, it is operating with nearly a $72,000 deficit. Most of its funding comes from the Department of Juvenile Justice. The rest comes from the United Way, the Pasco County Commission and individual contributions. The Conn Foundation donates money as well as a scholarship for boys who qualify for college.

State Sen. John Grant of Tampa, whose district included the facility prior to reapportionment and who remains one of its staunchest advocates, offers an interesting explanation for its perpetual money woes: San Antonio Boys Village, a private institution, is too efficient.

“I have visited a number of similar-type facilities all over the state and I don’t know of any that do it better,” he said. “Many of the halfway houses are simply warehousing facilities. That is to say, they are really prisons without bars. They don’t have the private involvement and employment opportunities and don’t try to conserve their allocations like San Antonio Boys Village does. What you do is penalize efficiency. We have a budget system that rewards inefficiencies.”

Beaumont, who has been known to shed a tear over the troubles of his boys, also suffers because he cannot pay his staff more. His administrative assistant, who has been with the program for 16 years, is his highest paid employee at $30,570 a year. Other valuable who have been there more 10 years, earn less than $20,000.

State and local officials and non-profit executives, while acknowledging the program’s effectiveness, are not generous. Beaumont concedes that the Boys Village’s good work is not enough. It sorely needs powerful lobbyists in Tallahassee.

He does know, however, that he would like to have enough money to do more to save a boy such as 16-year-old Ross Sepsi, of Clearwater, who is being released on Sept. 10. Ross committed his first crimes at 13, when he was in seventh grade, when he essentially dropped out of school. In a short time, he was grabbing as much as $200 to $300 a night.

“I got a couple of burglary charges and a couple of assault and battery charges,” he said. “I just stopped going to school. I went to Clearwater High for a couple of days, but I had other stuff to do. I got away with not going to school by just not going. They kept passing me from grade to grade. I straightened up for a while, and then I got into more stuff, selling drugs.”

Today, Ross, who lived with his father before being incarcerated, is feeling good about himself. He is doing well in ninth-grade classes and has learned valuable job skills in the nursery. But he is apprehensive about leaving San Antonio Boys Village.

“I want to make it on the outside, but it’s going to be hard because all of the stuff that was out there when I came here is still going out there _ drugs and everything and all of the money,” he said. “I’m going to try to make it. I’m going to try to be good. But it’s going to be hard. It’s not hard being good in here because you’re around all of this good stuff. Once you get out, you won’t have people around telling you what to do and stuff. You’ll just be on the streets.”

If Beaumont had his way _ and more money, of course _ San Antonio Boys Village would remain Ross’ safety net for as long as necessary. He wants to prevent the streets from reclaiming the child. Society should not lose a boy such as Ross, Beaumont said.

He is one of those talented, troubled “beauties” worth saving.