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Saturday, May 20, 2000

Youth at risk:  Turning it around

By Ken Ige, Star-Bulletin
Mabby McDiarmid Porter shares a light moment with
Castle High student Jennifer Iaea.

Castle program breaks
through when others fail

Learning the skills to survive

By Pat Gee


THINGS went downhill after Jennifer Iaea was expelled from a private school and transferred to Castle High School last fall.

Today, she's 18, unmarried and five months pregnant. But Iaea hasn't become another high school dropout.

Through a program at Castle for at-risk students, she found an inner resolve to hang onto her most cherished goals.

Her turnaround began in January, when she entered the "Breakthroughs for Youth At Risk" program and realized that she had to take personal responsibility for everything that had gone wrong in her young life.

Iaea and about two dozen other Castle students whose lives were falling apart because of broken homes, drugs, drinking and other destructive factors joined a program that had amazing results with other teens at the school almost two years ago.

Officials see students like Iaea and John Wager laying solid foundations for change after only a few months of diligently fulfilling the program's requirements.

Wager, 16, was a gang member in Chicago before moving to Hawaii and looked forward to rejoining his "boys" after high school. It was the only place he felt he belonged. He cut classes constantly, hung out with the wrong crowd, smoked pot and drank alcohol. Not any more.

Now, he talks about going to college and working in the stock market. He feels at home with the people he's met in the program because "I told them things I never told any others" -- things he feared, things that caused him to "get mad."

Both he and Iaea owe thanks to "Aunty Kanani" Kihara, a Castle teacher who has worked primarily with troubled youths for 20 years.

Unlearning self-destruction

Kihara and Bev Rodrigues, another youth counselor/teacher, initially were skeptical about what the program could accomplish. But of all the alternative programs they've seen, Breakthroughs is the only one with "amazing" results, she said.

Kihara urged Wager and Iaea to join the program but warned they had to make a 100 percent commitment for it to make a difference.

It entailed a five-day daytime "camp," which would force them to delve deep into themselves and identify why they responded to negative influences in self-destructive ways. It required them to stop blaming others for their behavior.

For 10 months, they would meet twice a week with their mentors and attend bi-monthly discussion groups and anger management classes.

It was a tall order, asking students on the verge of dropping out to make such a commitment. But Wager and Iaea were smart enough to know a lifeboat when they saw one.

"I had nothing to lose," said Wager, who lives with his mother. His estranged father is in Chicago. "Nothing was going good -- my grades, my relationships" with parents and friends.

He upped his failing grades to a D average after only one quarter, attending all classes and going home after school to study. At the suggestion of his mentor, Nick Kaars, he carries a planner to organize his time, writing notes to remind him when important school projects are due.

Kaars, an environmental designer, said Wager has done well in establishing goals, changing his perspective on issues that used to bother him, and "hanging out with a better group."

"If you hang out with the right people, it helps you stay on the high road," Wager said. "But if you take the low road, the people are like crabs in a barrel: they don't let you out but keep pulling you back into the bottom of the barrel."

Wager said he never used to care, but "I'm more worried about my life now. I want to do all these things and I'm wondering, is it too late?"

Family involvement

Iaea started "losing focus" in her junior year at Mid-Pacific Institute, which was "too hard for me."

Because she felt her mother in particular was not paying enough attention to her, "I was really bad -- not coming home at night, drinking, doing drugs. I used to think, 'Why go home?' I didn't care; they (her parents) didn't care. I realize now that I really need my family because they're the only ones who will be there for me."

Her parents did not take news of her pregnancy well, especially her father.

But, according to her mentor, Mabby McDiarmid Porter, "Jennifer matured right before their eyes." Her parents grew with her, as they learned to discuss emotionally charged problems in constructive ways.

"Now things at home are going super," she said.

A talented soccer player, Iaea still has her sights on studying sports medicine.

"This is just a roadblock," she said of her pregnancy. "It will just take more time."

Like the trusting, open relationship Wager has with Kaars, Iaea feels free to call Porter any time to talk, even if it's not about any problem.

Porter, who owns Davies Cruise Agency and has two children, thought she would be too busy to make the heavy commitment demanded of a mentor.

"But you just find the time for someone you care for," she said, adding Iaea's "in my life forever -- she can't leave!"

Being a mentor, which required rigorous self-analysis over two days of training, "makes me work on me," Porter said. "I had to change my whole way of talking, thinking and reacting ... and think of creative ways of getting (Iaea) to feel safe to talk to me."

Everyone worth helping

What she learned has helped her communicate more effectively with her own teen-agers.

"I learned: don't judge; give them unconditional love; remove 'poor me' from the situation and instead ask what it is they need from me."

Even Iaea's father calls Porter for advice, which has included, "Find the good in her and compliment her."

Retired principal Barbara Teruya, who opened the door for the Breakthroughs program at Castle, said it turned out to be "an answer from heaven."

When Castle Vice Principal Larry Biggs first suggested it, "I approved it because many kids had no other opportunity to salvage what little they had," Teruya said. "The students had hit rock bottom" after trying other programs.

"No matter how awful a kid behaved, we believed he was worth helping ... that there was some part of them -- some thread -- that was worth something," she said.

"I love this program."

Special to the Star-Bulletin
John Wager walks a tightrope 20 feet above the ground at
Camp Erdman during a two-day ropes course, part of the program
to help teens gain responsibility for their lives.

Learning the skills
to survive

By Pat Gee


TROUBLED teens are rewriting futures with the help of devoted mentors in Castle High School's Breakthroughs for Youth at Risk program.

The first session, involving two dozen students, began in November 1997. After only five months, school administrators were astounded.

Twenty-three of the 24 participants completed the rigorous extracurricular program while attending regular classes.

"We saw a tremendous transformation" in grades, school attendance and relationships with parents and peers, said Marvin Uehara, the program's executive director. "We've seen some pretty miraculous results."

The second session, expanded to 10 months, didn't begin until this January, but already, the results are proving to be just as encouraging.

Eighty-seven percent of the participants in the first Breakthroughs session at Castle either graduated, obtained a high school equivalency diploma or remained in school. That compared with only 38 percent of 13 students in a control group, Uehara said.

Participants improved their average grades from Ds to C-pluses, while grades for the control group were virtually unchanged. Absenteeism was cut in half -- from 27 percent to 13 percent, Uehara said.

In families, relationships with parents improved, attributed to "our clients' ability to control their temper more effectively and to feeling better about themselves," Uehara said. Also enhanced was self-esteem, an important foundation for any positive shifts in attitude or behavior, he said.

Most participants had no goals, but most later set three and said they had either accomplished them or were making progress toward them.

Students get half a credit, equivalent to a semester's work, for participating in the program. The current session takes them into the summer and next school year, well beyond the 60 hours required for a normal semester's work.

Breakthroughs for Youth At Risk is based on a concept originated by Clinton Terrell of Portland, Ore., who owns a company called "Leaps and Bounds."

Vice Principal Larry Biggs was instrumental in establishing Breakthroughs at Castle. He had been involved with the program, known then as Hawaii Youth at Risk, in 1990 when he was at Kalaheo High. When it folded in 1994, Biggs and his wife, Sharon Lester, believed the program was too valuable to let die and restarted it under the "Breakthroughs for Youth At Risk" name.

Its basic premise is to help teens shed negative beliefs and attitudes that have led them to drugs, crime, cutting classes, etc. and to have them take responsibility for changing their behaviors.

Intensive course in real life

The program involves a five-day day camp for mentors and students to break down emotional barriers. Mentors and students then have to make contact twice a week, attend bi-monthly group discussions and complete a two-day ropes course at Camp Erdman.

In the ropes course, students (wearing safety harnesses) have to cross ropes, strung 15-20 feet in the air between trees, to discover "how to handle and confront fear," Uehara said.

The exercises reveal if they are concerned with looking good or looking bad. "It gets them to look at how they play the game of life," Uehara said.

The program requires not only commitment from the teens, who are recommended and screened through school counselors and teachers, but from mentors, as well. Most of the youths have been hurt by adults who have "quit on them," Uehara said.

Most of the mentors were not troubled youths themselves, but volunteered because they "really care and just want to contribute," he said. They have to go through intense training for 2 days to bolster their own self-awareness and emotional strength, he said.

Two students from Kalaheo are participating in Castle's program, now the only one in Hawaii. The program could be offered at other schools, but money is a problem.

It costs $78,000 to fund a session, but no fees are charged. Mentors and staff are all volunteers, except for Uehara, who said the program depends on grants.

For more information or to become a mentor, call Uehara at 671-7988.

See also a story from our premiere edition

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