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Program helps teens turn lives around, avoid court system

Just two years ago, Diana Lopez was an unruly teenager who lashed out, broke the rules, and ran away from home.

Now she does things differently. She gets good grades, works at a YMCA day camp, and belongs to two youth groups.

Miss Lopez, 16, said she owes her attitude adjustment to ACHIEVE, a juvenile diversion program run by the city of Oregon.

“If I didn't go through ACHIEVE, I would probably be locked up or in a gang,” she said.

ACHIEVE started in September of 2000 to try to reform juveniles who committed minor offenses without sending them through the court system. Participants who follow a contract for three to six months evade the stigma of a criminal record.

Contracts are tailored to each participant. Terms include community service, involvement in an extracurricular activity, and group meetings. Some contracts incorporate therapy or drug rehabilitation.

“We're giving the kid that screwed up for the first or second time the opportunity to correct his or her behavior,” said Sgt. Joe Daniels of the Oregon Police Department.

ACHIEVE caters to offenders ages 7 to 17 who commit crimes such as petty theft, vandalism, or minor liquor or drug violations. Miss Lopez started the program when she was charged as a runaway.

When police refer an offender, case manager Kenneth McIntyre works with the youth and his or her family to design a contract. “We're looking for a complete solution,” he said.

As part of the package, parents spend 30 hours learning how to create a structured environment for strong-willed teens. The young offenders meet weekly in a group to learn about making smart decisions and setting goals.

“The meetings try to teach them not to be followers,” Sgt. Daniels said.

So far, 48 juveniles have successfully completed the program, and none has been in trouble since, Sergeant Daniels said. Six participants violated their contracts and were sent to court, three moved away while under contract, and 21 are in the program now.

Miss Lopez assists at group meetings for the current participants. She said some do not take the program seriously, but others take the lessons to heart. “I think it's helping a lot of the kids,” she said.

Last year, ACHIEVE was funded by a $43,000 federal grant. Under the grant rules, the city contributes 25 percent of the money. Organizers plan to try for $50,000 this year so they can employ an intern to help gather research and compile data on program graduates.

Most of the grant money goes for Mr. McIntyre's $36,000 annual salary as the case manager. He works more than 90 hours a month for ACHIEVE on top of his job as program director of the Eastern Community YMCA.

“Ken is one of the driving forces behind this program,” Sergeant Daniels said. “He can relate to these kids. He understands them.”

Miss Lopez said that Mr. McIntyre has been a great support.

Her mother, Virginia Lopez, said “he is good at what he does.”

Ms. Lopez also said she is impressed by how her daughter has turned her life around since graduating from ACHIEVE a year and a half ago.

“Diana has become a person that has a lot of self-esteem and motivation,” she said. “She knows that to get ahead in life you need to open doors, not close them.”

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