Ashley, 15, says she was angry all the time.
    She got into fights at school.
    She was a discipline problem.
    She battled her temper like an angel wrestling with the devil.
    The good news is that in the fight for her soul and future, you can chalk one up for the seraphims. With the help of CommuniCare — a nonprofit agency under the auspices of the United Way of Cumberland County that counsels and mentors at-risk youth —  and the dedicated men and women in its employ, Ashley (her last name withheld by request) is now positively angelic.
    {mosimage}“I’ve been here since February and I feel it’s really helped me handle my emotions in a better way rather than just getting angry,” said Ashley, who parked her halo at the CommuniCare office long enough to talk about the help she’s received at the agency, “like just writing it down or expressing it in a different way.
“I’ve stayed out of a lot of trouble that I could have gotten into if I wasn’t in this program,” said Ashley. “It gives me something to do with my time.”
    CommuniCare is getting ready to celebrate its 10th anniversary of providing troubled children and their families with guidance and help navigating the stormy years of adolescence. Among it’s many programs, CommuniCare helps the youth of Cumberland County battle the demons of substance abuse, gang activity and behavioral problems.
    John Bain, who works with the agency’s substance abuse program, says his job is bringing the diamond out of the lump of troubled coal that society often unceremoniously dumps at CommuniCare’s doorstep. And he knows he’s dealing with more than just angels with dirty faces.
    “By the time a kid comes to us they weren’t out of Bible study,” said Bain. “They’ve been pretty much run through the wringer. But I believe that 95 percent of our kids are salvageable.
    “And I’m not going to hype it,” added Bain. “I’ll say we have anywhere from a 25 to 40 percent success rate. But the wins make it worthwhile. It can be very rewarding, but you have to have the right frame of mind. If I’ve got seven kids and one of them makes it, that’s a success story. If you look at it any other way than this you’re not going to make it.”
    Formed a decade ago with the help of various county agencies and local political figures and businesses, CommuniCare helps children who might otherwise fall through the cracks of the social-support network, taking up where Smart Start leaves off, said Dr. Robin Jenkins, the non-governmental agency’s executive director.
    “Smart Start cuts off at age 5 — we start at age 6, on up to age 18,” said Jenkins. “A number of kids in middle and junior high school didn’t have a lot of services and didn’t have ways to coordinate those services. I get a feeling that the community really values us. The staff doesn’t turn over much, they seem very happy here. I equate that with us showing measurable differences in the lives of those children.”
One of those children is Darryl, 16, who says the CommuniCare staff plucked him from a life on the mean streets that had him heading for a dead end.
    “I’ve been here since April,” said Darryl. “I was sent here because of my past. Things I did got me in trouble. Mr. Antonio (Antonio Gardner, the organization’s intensive services network care manager) brought me into the program. It’s helped me with anger and dealing with my peers and certain other things in life, like if I’m in the wrong place I know I can call him.”
    The case managers and employees at the agency become surrogate parents for many of the kids who come through the doors of CommuniCare, providing family support for those most in dire need, said Sarah Hemingway, the community programs director for Communicare.
    “I think one thing Robin has done is create a family atmosphere here,” said Hemingway. “That’s the way we work. We accept that these are kids and they may not always be nice and polite when they first get here, but they’re not going to be if we don’t provide that family-friendly atmosphere.
    “We have some youths that come through here in various programs that they become dependent upon,” said Hemingway. “Some of the kids call him (Robin) daddy. He is that role model with them. He holds them accountable and is pretty firm on those kinds of things but he is also very comforting, and kids really like to talk to adults about what they feel is important.”
    Of course, that closeness to the kids comes at a price.
    “You become attached to them,” said Hemingway. “It’s hard not to. You lose your heart to a lot of them.”
CommuniCare doesn’t just work with the child, it pulls in the family and prescribes a treatment program involving the entire family unit. Unfortunately, unless court-ordered to do so, family members don’t have to be involved in the treatment of their children — it is a voluntary program.
    According to Richard Allingood, the program manager for the juvenile assessment center, when a youngster comes to or is referred to Communicare, an initial assessment is performed and the parents are also assessed regarding the child’s behavior.
    CommuniCare gets waivers to work with the at-risk children in the schools and once assessments have been scored, someone on the staff is assigned to work with that child. There is a sit-down with the parent(s) and a plan is devised as to where to plug that child in for services. A parent who is worried about a child having a drug problem is automatically assigned as a substance abuse education case. Children with anger management or behavioral problems are assigned to a different part of the agency.
    Allingood says that discipline problems seem to be on the rise.
    “Some of the kids today just fly off the handle so easily,” said Allingood,” so you have to determine if there’s a need for anger management.”
    In its 10-year existence, CommuniCare’s budget has grown from $250,000 to about $1.5 million, receiving funding from Cumberland County Community Development, the United Way, the Governor’s Crime Commission, the Juvenile Crime Prevention Program, the General Assembly, fundraising and grant writing.
Jenkins says CommuniCare  — which serves about 1,000 families a year — faces constant funding challenges with a budget that always seems stretched thin; however, he says society can pay now for a pre-emptive strike, or pay more later — much more, when untreated children wind up in the already overcrowded prison system.
    “It should not be so hard to do the right thing,” said Jenkins.”It’s hard fundraising. I’m very, very thankful for the money we get; we have extraordinarily good relationships with state government, juvenile justice, county government and the United Way — I’m very thankful for all that and am very appreciative.
    “Money’s tight and sometimes it’s so hard to convince people that if you put money on the front end of the system and you do it comprehensively, you save a whole, whole lot of money on the back end, plus you raise healthier children. What a lot of people see is these are bad kids ... you need to give them accountability and if they’ve done something you need to put them in a training camp or a training school. As long as that thinking succeeds, then it’s an uphill battle.”
    CommuniCare will celebrate its 10th anniversary with an open house from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sept. 17. For more information about the open house, call 829-9017.

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