Juveniles Read Out Of Their Problems And Probation

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A teenage boy stands before the judge. He can feel the eyes of his parents and other courtroom observers hot on the back of his neck.

He cannot help but wonder, what now?

Judge Peter Cahill has sentenced him to six months of probation that includes, of all things, book reports.

These aren't the kind of reports he can crib off CliffNotes, no he is expected to meet with an adult volunteer once a week at the Payson Public Library to discuss his progress.

The program is called "ReadOut." It began in the fall of 2005 after Cahill noticed that when he asked the juveniles who faced his bench what they did with their spare time, reading was rarely on the list.

He reached out to the Rim Country Readers, a group of bibliophiles, and asked if they would read books as a rehabilitation effort for troubled youth.

"Good kids do dumb things sometimes," Wilma Dalby said. Dalby is the woman Cahill credits with getting ReadOut off the ground.

"I think most teens would say they don't like being forced to read too much," Dalby said.

"I do it because I have to," one 17-year-old boy in the program said.

"In my case, I think they initially walk in and think, oh my gosh, she's an old woman," Dalby added.

Yet, in the course of the 20- to 30-minute meetings each week Dalby has found the youth she mentors one-on-one open up.

Cahill's staff screens juveniles, checking on school performance, substance abuse and public safety issues, before assigning them to ReadOut.

ReadOut volunteers are not informed of the offense, just the time, three, six or 12 months of the youth's probation.

"You made a mistake, now you are going forward," Dalby tells the girls and boys.

"I always start with a handshake and end the meeting with one too, so that they know we are straight across," said Carole Shevlin, coordinator of ReadOut.

"What are your interests? Do you like to read?" are two questions that come up fast in the first conversation between volunteer and juvenile.

ReadOut has a suggested book list so the teen can choose from fiction and non-fiction titles.

Classics such as S.E. Hinton's "The Outsiders" and Robert Cormier's "I Am the Cheese" join tales of adventure such as "Stormbreaker" and "Ender's Game" are on the fiction list.

On the non-fiction side is "One Child" by Torey Hayden, the true story of a child lost in anger until one teacher earns her trust.

"The Man Who Walked Between the Towers" is the true story of a French aerialist who strung his cable between the two towers of the World Trade Center and danced on the tightrope in 1974.

"We balance my wish that they read Jane Austen with the need to find books kids can relate to that will be meaningful to them," Cahill said.

"We see children as young as 10 up to 18, so the variety of interest is wide," Shevlin said.

Many volunteers are Friends of the Payson Library. There are also younger members of the library staff who have become involved.

The boy she recently finished mentoring is now off probation, working a steady job and studying for his GED.

"He graduated from us with honors. I don't literally mean that, but he was super," Shevlin said.

The ratio of boys to girls on probation assigned to ReadOut is about four to one, Shevlin said.

The program teaches the value of keeping appointments, helps youth hone their reading and writing skills. Perhaps most importantly, by discussing the books from their required journals, they are learning communication skills they need for life.

Much more often than not the ReadOut program has a positive impact. Reading improves self-expression.

Probation officer Kathy Coker likens the achievement of the teens as coming out of a cocoon.

Plus, they use what they read. One child wanted Coker to try cheese fondue because he had successfully tried the recipe in a book he read.

"Another cooked lobster. I can't cook lobster," she said.

A volunteer wrote in her report that the boy she was reading with was into "Star Wars" and that she never knew a neutron could do so much.

"She sensed he just wanted someone to listen to him," Coker said.

To become a ReadOut volunteer, contact Shevlin at (928) 474-7454.

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