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Classes offer hope to young offenders

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OREM — The sweet smell of pound cake baking in the oven wafted through the air as a group of boys huddled around ingredients for their next challenge: A batch of applesauce cookies.

Their tough demeanor gave way to fascination as a student chef explained the chemistry of how cakes and cookies rise.

It wasn't too long ago that many of the same kids were arrested for dealing drugs, shoplifting, burglary or committing a sex crime.

The cooking class is part of a 4th District Court program held at Utah Valley State College that takes kids who are one step away from incarceration and puts them in situations that open their eyes to more positive possibilities.

"A lot of them are from home situations where their choices are really limited," said Luella Jones, UVSC coordinator for seminars and workshops.

"I just hope they will have an 'ah-ha' experience — at least one thing that will change their life in some way, that will influence them for the better."

Since the program started in June 2000, many of these troubled youths have had a chance to try fencing, fly an airplane and even take a shot at rock climbing and gymnastics.

Jones said when a juvenile probation officer from 4th District Court approached her with the idea, it seemed like the perfect fit.

Because UVSC offers community education courses on a variety of subjects, it was simply a matter of asking many of the instructors if they would mind donating some time to broaden the horizons of some juvenile offenders, she said.

Jones said she was surprised at the response.

"There are people out there that do care about the community and do care about these kids, enough to share some of their skills with them," Jones said.

The classes are held on Monday and Friday evenings for juvenile offenders between the ages of 14 and 18. Past classes have included auto mechanics, public speaking and outdoor survival.

Jones has managed to get the county health department to come and train the kids for their food handler's licenses, and some have also been certified in CPR.

But these classes are more than just for fun. All of the juveniles are under court order and probation and must work off "points" given to them by a juvenile-court judge as part of their sentences.

"This is the edge. For many of them, they are one step away from being pulled from home, incarcerated or placed into foster homes," said probation officer Laura Mendoza as she watched two boys try to separate egg whites from yolks during a course on cooking.

Grant, a 17-year-old offender, is already on intensive probation with no second chance other than lock-up.

"You have to call in, like, three times a day" to a probation officer, he said. By taking the classes, Grant said he feels like he is actually learning something.

Marcus, a 15-year-old offender, said he is simply in the class to work off his points. "This is the best way," he said. "It's better than being on the side of the highway picking up garbage."

Jones said it is still too early to tell what kind of impact the classes are having on the youths.

"I feel that the program that Luella has set up is providing opportunities for these at-risk youth that they might not have had otherwise," said Shelly Waite, head probation officer for 4th District Juvenile Court.

E-MAIL: gfattah@desnews.com