PERHAM - Youth Actively Restoring Debt (YARD) is a community service program for juvenile offenders sentenced to hours of work in the community. The County Probation Department in conjunction with local judges and fitness coaches are piloting the program at two locations. The goal is to encourage juveniles who come to Court with charges of tobacco, vaping, drugs and alcohol to make better decisions by participating in healthy behaviors.
Inspiration for the program came in the early hours of the morning as Judge Sharon Benson exercised with her fitness coach Karoline Gustafson of CrossFit Fergus Falls. Through the support of a health coach, she noticed the impact of exercise on her overall wellbeing. In interacting with Gustafson, they began a conversation about healthy behavioral changes for juveniles and the framework for YARD was created.
Desta Lutzwick, Otter Tail County Probation director and Jeff Gontarek, community services specialist, long-time professionals working with juvenile offenders, were looking for other options for youth in the community service program. Judge Benson approached Lutzwick to collaborate in the program.
"Desta has worked her entire career to reach juveniles," commented Judge Benson. "She is the perfect person to make this happen."
Juveniles convicted of crimes that harm themselves through chemical use seemed to be ideal candidates for the YARD program. Young people caught smoking, vaping or underage drinking are typically sentenced to serve 8 to 16 hours of community service in a local nonprofit such as the Salvation Army Thrift Store, Humane Society, Welcome House or the Recycling Center in Fergus Falls or the Reuse It Store and Pass-it-on Ministries in Perham. The YARD program will provide an opportunity to redirect youth who harm their bodies to a program that promotes healthy behaviors, develops a sense of community and allows for a supportive environment to make better decisions.
"We are really excited. We know the importance of exercise on people's emotional and physical wellbeing and the benefits of lifestyle change. We provide a welcoming environment with a positive crew," said Gustafson.
YARD will be hosted in partnership with Lake Region Healthcare's CrossFit program and the Perham Area Community Center. Juveniles are carefully selected by Gontarek to participate in the program. Juveniles are registered for one-hour exercise sessions and must attend until their hours have been completed.
Community service is intended to pay back the community for time and services taken from others and have accountability for choices they have made. The lessons that are promoted in doing community service include having accountability for your decisions and actions; decisions affect many people and the community; managing and learning acceptable behaviors; job skills; and ways to give back to the community. The YARD program strives to promote healthy choices, provide mentors who demonstrate overcoming personal challenges and learning ways to care for your mind and body.
Juveniles who do not qualify for the YARD program will continue to serve their hours in local non-profits.
Warren Burris, Redemption Operator at the Fergus Falls Recycling Center, has been working with juveniles in the community service program for 23 years. Youth assigned to this location sweep and mop floors, collect recycling and process other recyclable items such as books.
"Most of the kids have never had a job or had to do this type of work, so I demonstrate for them and try to teach them," responded Burris. "The community service program helps out a lot to help the County. Last week we would have been swamped without juveniles willing to work."
Burris sees very few juveniles for a second time. Lutzwick calls Burris an "exceptional person" as he has made a positive impact in the lives of many local youth. Burris treats young people under his supervision with respect and care. According to Gontarek, from 1997 to 2019, almost 23,000 hours have been served by juveniles at the recycling center and another 23,000 at the Salvation Army Thrift Store.
The YARD program, a first of its kind in Minnesota, is still a pilot program. The program is made possible by the partnerships of local exercise facilities, District Judges, and Otter Tail County probation staff.