Saving the Youth

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 11, 2005

Through

the Times-Journal has published several letters and articles pertinent to the Boy’s Ranch as well as the Dallas County Boot Camp.

Some are critical of the program and the people who operated it. Some are defensive, seeking to explain the way in which the camp

and ranch were run and mentioning positive results. Others blame the cutting of funding, while at least one article attempts to justify this action taken by the overseeing state board. However, no article or letter denies the necessity of a place for young people who have stumbled on their way to adulthood.

The Old Depot Museum is a regularly scheduled stop on the tourist bus agenda, along with Sturdivant, Smitherman and the National Voting Rights museums. In addition, we open our doors to school tours, both local and out-of-town, and to historic associations and groups. And for the past year or so, here at the Old Depot we have welcomed graduates of the Boot Camp, who are entering upon the “CITY Program,” housed at Craig Field and one of the more outstanding programs available, as well as students assigned at the Phoenix School.

I became familiar with the Boot Camp cadets through my one-time appointment to its advisory committee. (Now serving as vice president of the CITY program – Wallace Community College President Dr. James Mitchell is president –

I am as firmly committed to its purpose as I am convinced of its necessity.)

After their time in camp, these young cadets, their ages range from 14 to l8, are clean-cut, well-mannered and courteous. They are bright and alert. So far, they seem to delight in their tours of the museum, asking a myriad of questions about the history on exhibit here, never failing to add a “ma’am” or a “sir.” How refreshing.

As I greet each group I am reminded of my own three grandsons, who through the grace of God, have been more blessed than these boys (not yet young men), and it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain a detached attitude. My emotions get in the way.

From the years of rearing my own sons, from the happy hours spent with my grandsons, I know that boys like to play baseball, ride bicycles, swim, fish and watch television cartoons.

I remember that their stomachs are bottomless pits and their appetites ferocious. No batch of fresh-baked cookies was ever large enough to last more than one day. No platter of fried chicken, no grill filled with hamburgers and hotdogs, no pan of hot biscuits ever held enough for the morrow.

Milk disappeared from the refrigerator, ice cream from the freezer and apples from the fruit basket as if on magical wings.

On weekends their father had time for batting practice, football pass throwing and basket shooting. On winter evenings we played board and card games, chess, cribbage and worked jigsaw puzzles.

On Saturday mornings we visited the public library as a family. On Sunday we occupied our church pew as a family. We supervised homework, checked that assigned chores were completed. And every evening we kissed them and said “Good night, sweet dreams, we love you.”

Routine to the day for each were baths, teeth brushing, haircuts and fingernail clipping. Their clothes were clean, their sheets were clean, their lives were orderly. We reared them as we were reared and as my grandsons are being reared.

I am told that almost without exception the Boot Camp cadets are the product of abusive, usually one-parent homes or no homes. This is true also of most of the students of the Phoenix School. Yet when they visit us at the museum, they smile, they are courteous and they are hungry for knowledge. A few minutes conversation reveals quick intellect and a keen interest in the world around them.Each time they leave I reflect:

If there is no one to see that a child is given the creature comforts necessary for good health and hygiene, can we expect that child to grow up into a well-groomed young man? When there is no one to read a book to a little boy or to check his school work or to sign a report card or to visit his class room, can we expect that little boy to work hard enough to earn a diploma and thus open the door to success?

When there is no one, absolutely no one, to hold and comfort a child when he stumbles and falls, can we expect that child to do other than struggle and fail?

And if no one ever hears his prayers at bedtime and says to him, “You are my son in whom I am well pleased. I love you.” can that child grow into a loving and concerned parent?

With each visit of the Boot Camp cadets and the Phoenix School students my concern grows deeper for these children and the hundreds like them whom we have abandoned. My heart aches in the knowledge that our indifference to their plight and our neglect of their circumstances are largely responsible for their being outcasts from their peers and journeying down a long and lonely road.

It is far more pleasant to look the other way, to speak glibly of “today’s terrible kids,” then go on with our own lives.

I can no longer turn my face from the bright promise still visible on the faces of these young people, whose hands I shake as they leave our museum. I long to hold them close and tell them that we care, that some of us care. I want to take the fear from their eyes by reassuring them that the world of tomorrow will have a place where they belong. No one can do it alone.

We must find a way to save God’s children, who are also