Wednesday, August 5th, 2009
By Shelley Grieshop
New juvenile offender program gets thumbs up
  A juvenile court program that teaches youths how to prepare healthy meals has been deemed a success in its first year.
From September through June, Mercer County Juvenile Court officials teamed up with the local Ohio State University Extension office to help troubled juveniles improve their social skills, self confidence and leadership skills and learn new skills and interests while learning to cook and eat healthier meals.
"It was an awesome experience," Juvenile Court Probation Officer Judy Hiday said. "We taught basic life skills. Some of these kids had never used measuring spoons before."
The program, "Cooking for Better Health While Saving Money," was created with funding from a Reasonable and Equitable Community and Local Alternatives to the Incarceration of Minors (RECLAIM) Ohio Grant through the Department of Youth Services.
Sixteen youths ages 10 to 18, who were on probation through the court, participated in one of three, six-week sessions at the Central Services Building in Celina. About half of the students were court-ordered to attend the sessions.
Each class was two hours in length and focused on nutrition, cooking and thrifty money management. The sessions were led by Barbara Hennard, the local OSU Extension educator and family and consumer sciences agent.
The highlight of each six-week session was a special banquet planned and prepared by the students for 30 to 35 guests, including court and school personnel and family. The fall class made a Thanksgiving dinner; the January to March class made a Valentine's Day buffet; and the last class focused on a spring buffet.
The students planned each detail from the table linen to the recipes chosen. Each step required discussion and cooperation, which strengthened the youths interpersonal relationships, Hiday said.
One student from each session voluntarily returned to help lead the next, she said.
"The program really helped establish leadership roles," Hiday added.
Probation department officials intend to continue the program next year and have been given the blessing of the county commissioners who must approve applications for funding.
The juvenile court probation department has received RECLAIM Ohio funding since 1994. During the last four years, the grant has brought in approximately a quarter million dollars annually for numerous expenses from employee salaries to youth services, says Sue Wilkins, the agency's grant administrator.
"The grant pretty much pays for about everything in our department" excluding some clerical and administrative expenses that are funded by the county, she added.
The RECLAIM Ohio initiative was created in July 1993 through House Bill 152 in response to a growing need for alternatives to overcrowded institutions. The Department of Youth Services in 1994 chose nine pilot counties to jump-start the program, which included Mercer and Van Wert. In 1995, RECLAIM Ohio was implemented statewide.
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