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MENTORS OFFER SOMETHING TEEN INMATES LACK: HOPE

Their requests aren't outrageous for normal kids, but these are teens incarcerated in the Decker Lake Youth Facility.

A program that's still being developed by the facility's administration might give these wayward teens what they want, and more importantly, what they need.Decker Lake is the teenage version of prison, and for most of the teens who reside there, it is their last chance to go straight.

Administrators hope the men-tor-ing program, though still in its infancy, will offer the alienated teens a chance to connect.

"They have no attachment to anything," said Mike Conn, treatment supervisor for Decker Lake, "which is part of of why they can go out and take everything."

The idea began with the facility's superintendent, Salvador Mendez. To start the program, Mendez used University of Utah students who were taking a class on juvenile crime. Some of the students continued to visit with Decker Lake residents after the class ended.

In hopes of recruiting more volunteers for the mentoring program as well as others, the facility took out ads in local papers. One of those ads caught the eye of Rachel Dinoto.

"I was supposed to be studying for a test, but I was procrastinating," said the 23-year-old graduate student. "I thought `this would be fun' . . . and I love it."

Dinoto, a chemistry major, has turned the teens, most of whom hate school, on to science by conducting group experiments.

"They are a very, very intelligent group of kids," Dinoto said. "They whiz through the activities in half the time I plan. They're inquisitive; they always take it a few steps further."

The best part for Dinoto is watching the teens gain confidence doing things they thought they couldn't do.

"It's nice to leave somebody with a feeling like they've accomplished something," she said.

The teens smile when you talk about the mentors. One boy asks his caseworker when he can have one. He says he needs help with school and he's getting discouraged.

Shirley Davis, the counselor who coordinates the volunteers and mentors, said it takes at least a month for the adults to earn the trust of the teens.

"These kids have already dealt with abandonment issues," Davis said. "It's important for someone to show up and be consistent."

Such volunteers can really make a difference in a teenager's life, she said. Through an association with a community member, who's not paid to spend time with them, the teens learn that "life is not full of drive-by shootings and drug deals."

"Often times, that's the only life they see," she said. "It also gives them hope. They get locked up and often they figure `I'm a loser. There's nothing more I can do with my life.' "

Conn and Davis said the time spent interacting with mentors teaches the teens social skills, which many of them lack.

"They (volunteers) provide a valuable service, and also help to normalize the environment," Conn said. Aside from all the therapeutic advantages for having community members work with the youths, the teens say it makes them feel - sometimes for the first time - the community that's punishing them still cares about them.

"It was pretty cool," said Tony, who participated in the program from the start. "They weren't really formal, and they did whatever we wanted. They talked about what we were doing, and it was cool because it was all about me."

Decker Lake officials are looking for mentors and volunteers, and Davis said the only requirement is commitment.

"Mentoring is really prevention," she said. "But where am I going to go to get 56 dedicated people to come in and work with these kids? That's my dream."