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Free program offers job training, education help for youth offenders

By Megan Workman

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Kanawha County had more youth crime in 2008 and 2009 than any other county in West Virginia; a new reintegration program aims to help those juvenile offenders.

In 2009, there were 478 delinquent offenders in Kanawha County, a decrease from the 516 offenders in 2008, according to the most recent report published by the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia Division of Probation Services and completed by the Division of Court Services.

Only four other counties -- Berkeley, Cabell, Mercer and Wood -- served more than 150 juvenile offenders in the state in 2009.

The EPIC program -- Empowering, Positive, Integrated, Communities -- aims to "improve the employability and decrease the recidivism of juvenile offenders by providing skills, training and service-learning opportunities," according to the state Human Resource Development Foundation, which applied for the grant.

The program is funded by a $1.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor, through the Reintegration of Ex-Offenders Training and Service Learning Grants.

The Reintegration of Ex-Offenders is designed to strengthen urban communities through an employment-centered program that incorporates mentoring, job training and other transitional services, according to the Department of Labor.

Stephanie Ahart, regional manager for the state Human Resource Development Foundation, said participants would be able to earn a wide range of certifications, get a GED and attend college classes and vocational training programs for free.

The EPIC program is affiliated with unions, making apprenticeship programs available, she said.

Unique partnerships -- including one with Kanawha Valley Community and Technical College, which will train heavy equipment operators -- are part of the program too.

Not only will the program teach skills development in "in-demand" fields, students will also do community service activities, Ahart said.

The commitment of 32 hours a week will get students used to working full time. They will fill out time sheets weekly to "treat this as a job," she said. Students can even earn minimum wage.

"We will pay everything," Ahart said. "It's a unique opportunity and we are excited to offer this to as many youth as we can recruit."

Ahart said through the state Division of Juvenile Services, there are at least 190 youths in Kanawha County who are eligible for the program, but she expects that number to be much higher.

Youths between the ages of 18 and 21 who were involved in the juvenile justice system at the age of 14 or older are eligible. They must live in Kanawha County or be returning to the area when they complete an out-of-home placement in the juvenile justice system.

People who have been convicted as an adult under federal or state law are not qualified.

Ahart said she and the program's staff are accepting applications now for participants and mentors.

The group hopes to have students attending classes and training while getting advice from mentors by January, she said.

Mentors can be business professionals, educators, people who are retired or anyone who is a good role model and willing to volunteer his or her time, Ahart said.

"We will be doing case management but the mentors create that solid connection with the student," Ahart said. "We want to match [mentor and student] personalities. Our goal would be for each individual to have a mentor."

Ahart said the program's goal is to enroll at least 100 students with as many mentors.

The 26-month-long program will train and educate half of the accepted students for the first six months. Once those students get a job, program staff will follow up on their success for the next three months. Then the other half of enrollees will go through the EPIC program.

"With the lack of education and work experience of these young adults, we don't want to give them a handout but a hand up to be productive citizens," said Loyd Casto, employment and job developer for the program. "We're trying to get them, instead of being a dropout and being in gangs, to get them some positive reinforcement and opportunities in continuing their education and employment."

Students will train in workshops at the program's office at 115 Spring St., which is still under construction. They will be able to learn electrical and plumbing work in the same building where they are attending classes, Ahart said.

"It's important to have that daily contact with them," Ahart said. "It's going to be structured but also individualized."

To learn more about the EPIC program or to get an application as a participant or mentor, call the Human Resource Development Foundation at 304-342-2078 or email Ahart at sahart@hrdfwv.org.

Reach Megan Workman at megan.workman@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5113.


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