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'It's an outlet': Juvenile Justice program allows kids to compete in sports

OGDEN — For a moment, the boy looks like any other high school athlete enjoying a moment of success.

The 18-year-old celebrates an impressive play at the net by clenching his fists, yelling in satisfaction and accepting high-fives from his teammates as a coach praises him.

But for the muscular teen (his name and names of the other youths are not being published for their privacy), this volleyball game with liberal rules and very few spectators is much more than an opportunity to show off his athletic ability. It is a bit of freedom, a taste of normalcy, for young men and women who spend their teenage years locked away from all the usual high school activities, rituals and rites of passage.

“It’s an outlet,” said the Roy native. “There is no stress, just having fun. I like all of it.”

The young man said he's always enjoyed playing sports, but he was too busy following his older brother around to commit to what a coach or team would require. That changed when bad decisions became criminal conduct and he was committed to secure care in the Utah Juvenile Justice system.

In custody at the Millcreek Youth Center in Ogden, the teen is getting the opportunity to see what he's capable of athletically thanks to sports programs that youths in care can earn access to through good behavior.

The programs offered at all the state's secure facilities range from pickleball to basketball and volleyball. Most of the teens participating in a recent tournament hosted by Millcreek have never played organized sports before joining these teams. This one-day tournament is something both very ordinary and extremely special.

The teen said he’s discovered a talent and passion for sports, especially basketball. He’s hoping to pursue competitive athletics after he’s released.

“I regret it a lot,” he said of never playing organized sports. “I like this because it’s competitive. … On days we play, I’m not as antsy. I can focus. I don’t let things bother me as much. Sports are a coping mechanism.”

The Millcreek Mavericks talk with their coach during a one-day volleyball tournament that is part of a sports program in the Juvenile Justice System that offers teens an opportunity to compete in sports like volleyball, basketball and pickleball.
The Millcreek Mavericks talk with their coach during a one-day volleyball tournament that is part of a sports program in the Juvenile Justice System that offers teens an opportunity to compete in sports like volleyball, basketball and pickleball.
Jackie Chamberlain, Juvenile Justice Services

Millcreek director Michelle Havranek organized the Saturday tournament that brought teams from four of Utah’s five secure juvenile facilities: one girls team — the Farmington Bay Blitz — and four boys teams — the Decker Lake Ducks and the Slate Canyon Spartans, as well as two fielded by Millcreek, since it has the largest population with 54 teens in custody.

The daylong tournament, which the Millcreek Mavericks won after a double elimination against Decker Lake, 21-18, allows the teens to apply the lessons of a team sport to a competitive event.

“The teamwork, the camaraderie, and the kids just enjoy it,” Havranek said of why she supports athletic opportunities for the teens. “It helps out with behavior. They hae something to look forward to.”

Jackie Chamberlain, Juvenile Justice Services public information officer, said there are studies that show athletic endeavors help young people in myriad ways.

“Sports is really just good for positive mental health,” she said, noting the system also have a before-school P.E. class, which is based on a study showing early-morning workouts lead to better academic performance. “It’s a good outlet. These kids spend a lot of time in the classroom and working on their treatment.”

Like Havranek, she sees the moments of “normalizing” critical for these young people who will leave secure care by the time they’re 21 and hopefully have the social, emotional and educational skills to build successful lives.

A 17-year-old girl from Farmington Bay said she plays because it is a break from the monotony and heaviness of school and treatment.

“I like it because it’s fun, and I’m pretty good at it,” she said. “It’s just a break.”

She said she doesn’t care about winning or losing, but she enjoys the opportunity to exercise and compete.

“It just gives me a break from everything,” she said. “I don’t think about things in the moment.”

One father attended the tournament and he said he wasn’t just grateful that his son was enjoying the kinds of activities he signed him up for when he was small. He was also grateful the games were teaching him lessons that could change his life.

“I think it teaches self-discipline, respecting authority and learning how to control yourself,” said Demetri Robertson, whose 17-year-old son was participating in the tournament. “It’s a breath of fresh air for our kids. It definitely is impacting him — personally more than physically. He’s making friends and learning how to control himself.”

He said that the teens travel to other facilities, see other areas of the state and meet youths from different backgrounds is an unintended benefit of the program.

“It lets them know it's OK to be nice,” Robertson said of how they must earn the right to play and compete. “They’re learning sportsmanship and dealing with disappointment through losing. They learn you don’t have to be hard.”