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Hammer Time

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For the kids at Our House, a residential vocational program for teens in Ellicott City, Md., days off can be tricky. Once, a counselor learned that a student’s mother was forcing him to carry a pistol during his weekend home visits so that he could rob people to help support her drug habit. The program’s founder and director, Richard Bienvenue, responded by permanently revoking the boy’s weekend passes.

“He threw a hissy fit,” recalls Bienvenue, 54. “He said, ‘Why are you keeping me here?’ I said, ‘I love you, and I want you to stay alive.'” The kid couldn’t help but smile. “He tried to stifle it. He bit his lip. But he realized he was cared for and that there was safety here.”

That’s a luxury few of the 16-to 21-year-olds in Bienvenue’s program have ever experienced. The boys of Our House, located on the rolling grounds of a 60-acre private psychiatric facility outside Baltimore, are sent from foster homes or the juvenile justice system for offenses ranging from truancy to auto theft. Most bring along the lingering effects of childhood abuse and neglect. “They’ve been dumped on and abandoned,” says Bienvenue. “They’ve become con artists and manipulators just to survive.”

Bienvenue aims to give them other options. A Washington, D.C., native who holds degrees in sociology and counseling, “Benny” (as his students call him) is also a skilled carpenter—a craft he learned as a teen helping his father, a federal employee, renovate houses as a sideline. That experience (and, he says, the belief that “working with wood is therapeutic”) led to a job teaching carpentry and life skills to inner-city special-ed kids. But his efforts were undermined, he says, when they returned to crime-ridden streets and abusive homes. “I said, ‘I’ve got to get these kids out of where they are.'”

And so, in 1993, he founded Our House. The nonprofit program, funded by government grants and private donations and staffed by a mix of employees and volunteers, is the only one of its kind in the U.S. “Benny uses every resource to challenge these boys, to give them some perspective, so they don’t repeat patterns inherent in their own families,” says Eileen McCaffrey, executive director of the Orphan Foundation of America. Along with academics and psychological counseling, Our House provides them with training for jobs in the construction trades. Billeted in spartan rooms equipped with a bed, desk and chair, they wake every morning at 6 and spend most days renovating several of the facility’s 20 ramshackle outbuildings.

The work doesn’t stop at the end of an eight-hour shift. Before 10 p.m. lights-out, the boys study for their high school equivalency degrees. On weekends they volunteer at a food bank, clean roadsides or paint the homes of the elderly. “I was doing bad things in my life,” says Josh Hollada, 18, of Baltimore, a former dropout who plans to become an underwater welder. “This is my chance to do something right.”

To date, Bienvenue’s program, which has received praise from Oprah Winfrey and an award from President Bush, has trained 64 kids with tough love. The rules include a ban on wearing headphones or sunglasses indoors. “It’s an avoidance thing,” Bienvenue explains. When students do well, they’re likely to receive a hug from Bienvenue, a gold dollar coin (he keeps a roll in his pocket) or a candy bar and a “job well done” note left on their bunk. Through an informal agreement with the local carpentry union, graduates are virtually guaranteed a job, and hours worked at Our House are credited toward their union certification.

Our House’s methods seem to be working. The recidivism rate among grads is 19 percent, compared with a statewide average among juveniles of 80 percent. But just as meaningful to Bienvenue is the affection that his students return to him. When he and his wife of eight years—Mary, 54, a Justice Department office manager—flew to Michigan in 1999 to attend the graduation ceremony for an Our House alum who had completed Navy basic training, the boy introduced the couple to his friends as “my mom and dad.”

Still, not every Our House case history has a happy ending. In September Bienvenue was stunned to learn that on a visit to his aunt, student Robert White, 17, was stabbed to death by unknown assailants. Bienvenue sees the murder—the first of an Our House student—as evidence of how badly his program is needed. “I want these kids to have a better life,” he says. “I don’t want to see any more go down.”

To that end, this month he’s about to move his operation to a nearby 140-acre farm, where the curriculum will expand to include gardening and beekeeping. Even if those skills aren’t in demand in the job market, says Bienvenue, his goal “isn’t just getting kids employed. It’s helping them face the future with confidence.”

Susan Schindehette

Andrea Billups in Ellicott City