Non-profit business reaches out to at-risk boys

by Antoinette Ardis on December 17, 2010

Written by: William West

Program director Steve Ajlouni of Harrison Homes, sheds light on teenage at-risk boys.

Steve Ajlouni spends his work day trying to save at-risk teenage boys who are usually gang-affiliated and come from homes with no fathers and drug-addicted mothers. The boys come from surrounding counties on orders from a judge, usually from the juvenile courts. The company he works for, Harrison Homes, is named for its founder, Bill Harrison, who, like Mr. Ajlouni, was a California Youth Authority counselor.  Mr. Ajlouni has been with Harrison Homes from the beginning.

The business is comprised of four Stockton group homes that can handle six kids each. During the day the boys attend a school run by the San Joaquin County Office of Education. Some have jobs in their off hours.

One young truant had a part-time job with a McDonald’s outlet. He was a diligent worker and when he was returned to his home area in Fresno County, he went to work at a Fresno area McDonald’s and eventually became its manager. He has been there for eight years.

“Sometimes we really save a kid,” Mr. Ajlouni said. “That is the most wonderful thing. Unfortunately, we only seem to save about half the boys that come through here.”

Jail or graveyard

The youths are on their way to early graves, often because of gang wars, or jail. They often have mental deficits because during pregnancy their mothers used crack cocaine. When their misbehavior takes them to the juvenile courts they are sent away from their home county to adjacent counties.

“They need to be away from their homeboys and from the neighborhoods they know,” Mr. Ajlouni said. “They are not bad seeds. They just have some tough problems. Many are slow to learn because their brains were damaged by the crack their mother used. They don’t have any father figures at home.”

The idea of the group homes and the school is to give them the structure that their lives lacked. And to teach them how to succeed in a world they often don’t understand. Worse, the “straight” world, which gangbangers call more normal work and family life, is derided. It’s not cool to be square. Most teenagers go through a rebellious stage but these at-risk youths have no foundation of stability to balance the natural urge of rebellion. They are lost in a world where drugs and gangs are normal. They are often intimidated and embarrassed by the usual work routines and school routines. They often can’t read or write at age fifteen or more.

The One Program

The SJ County Office of Education started a program called the One Program in 1993, prior to that all the group home kids went to Lincoln High School.

“That was a logistical nightmare,” said Mr. Ajlouni. “We had to hang out at the school to make sure the kids were there. They don’t want to go to school.”

The One Program brings the kids to one place and there are security personnel to handle any problems that might occur. The kids are from rival gangs and conflict is expected from them by fellow gang members. It is their form of status and acceptance. In the program no gang colors or signs are allowed. The group homes are divided into the various gang affiliations to prevent fights.

“I teach all their subjects,” Craig Tritch said during a phone interview. “It takes a while to create a classroom environment where you can develop a relationship with them. You have to keep at it. Most importantly, you have to keep reinforcing that they are in your environment. Once you get that across, and it’s not easy, the new student can’t be as disruptive because the rest of the kids have bought in. The new guy joins my world, not the other way around.”

Mr. Tritch has 23 years experience teaching at-risk youth.

“You have to teach them rather than simply present material to them,” said Mr. Tritch. “It is a very big difference and some people just can’t do it.”

The students must take the same skill tests that any other California student must take. Strong instruction in math and English is the main curriculum.

Youngsters that fail to assimilate and return to crime and drugs will be a financial burden to all taxpayers who must pay for their incarceration or drug treatment. The dollar cost to society in driver-impaired car accidents has been estimated in the millions of dollars. The heartache of the human damage caused by the accidents is incalculable. Like it or not, spending taxpayer money on group homes through county expenditures is a way to head off even more expense in the future.

On a human level, what one notices in the classroom is that these are very young men. They don’t appear to be menacing gangsters.

“You just need to be real with these kids,” Mr. Ajlouni said. “You can’t save them all but once you are in this business, it gets into your blood. When you get a call or a letter from someone like the kid who grew into a man and now manages the McDonald’s, well, it helps you keep going.”

See Article in the Central Valley Business Journal