July, 20 2018

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The directed heart

PROGRAM helps TEENS look inward, move forward out of trouble

BOLINGBROOK � It's 5:30 p.m. and JoAnn Robinson has a problem.

In 30 minutes, a half-dozen TEENS will march through the doors of the Bolingbrook Town Center, their criminal histories in tow.

Signs need to be hung, files organized and the candy jar filled. There is no time for tiny tasks in a room full of kids requiring constant supervision.

But it is the petite young girl standing next door in the police department who has Robinson deep in thought.

The TEEN isn't even old enough to drive, but already her family has given up on her.

After a few phone calls, Robinson is able to rouse the necessary relative to resolve the situation before class starts.

She'll give this girl and every ADOLESCENT who walks through her door one more chance � her heart is that big because the consequences are that grave.

"If you don't listen to me now, you will remember it in jail," Robinson warned students that night.

'Boot Camp' offshoot
With a sweat shirt announcing her as the "community service lady" and a tough-love attitude, Robinson directs The HEART Organization, the community-service and mentoring PROGRAM she founded three years ago in Bolingbrook. For more than three hours each night, three days a week, she and her staff try to put TEENS, many of whom have committed misdemeanor crimes, on the right path. Before founding HEART, this former host of the local cable access "From the Heart Show" started the Spiritual Boot Camp Soldiers, a Sunday school-type PROGRAM for community children.
Soon, older kids came to her in need of a place to carry out court-mandated community service hours.

Knowing she couldn't mix elementary children with the TROUBLED TEENS, Robinson formed The HEART Organization.

"Growing up, someone helped me," she said.

A former at-risk youth from the Chicago projects, Robinson has walked a mile and back in these kids' shoes.

Varied backgrounds
And the students are as varied as their shoe styles and sizes.
They are white, black, Asian and Latino and range in age from 11 to 18.

On any given night, a quarter to more than a third of the participants are girls. In fact, Robinson has noticed an increase over the years in the number of white females entering her program.

Some teens attending HEART are middle class. Others come from poverty.

In each new class, a handful of boys don't own ties and don't have anyone at home to show them how to tie them.

Here, gang members sit next to honor students.

"What are you doing here?" Robinson asked one of the TEENS who had a grade point average of more than 3.5.

The majority of these adolescents are not hardened criminals.

Most of the teens come to Robinson after pleading guilty to local ordinance violations in Bolingbrook's branch court.

They have been caught smoking, stealing or breaking curfew. Sometimes the crimes are more serious, including battery, domestic violence and possession of drugs or toy guns.

Retail theft is the most common offense, Robinson said.

Normally children, or even adults, sentenced to community service have to perform work, like sweeping floors.

HEART is different.

Instead of labor, TEENS receive credit for community service hours by spending time learning about their crime, themselves and the path to a successful, law-abiding life.

"You have an alternative where you can hopefully direct the kid to put them on the right track," said Will County Chief Judge Stephen White, who is a guest speaker for the PROGRAM.

'Yes, Ma'am'
Robinson knows participants will test her authority the moment they walk through her door. They don't get the chance. "My first impression was she was strict, real strict," said one 15-year-old boy. (Editor's Note: The Herald News has decided not to publish the names of program participants.)
Piercings, hats and gang paraphernalia are off limits. The only style statement at HEART is one of uniformity: crisp white shirts, dark slacks, belts, ties for the boys and dress shoes.

Every answer begins with a, "Yes, Ma'am," or "Yes, Sir."

"You don't respond with a 'yeah,'" Robinson charged to teens one night.

And students only speak when spoken to.

One moment staff will take a student to task for misbehaving and, in the next, acknowledge TEENS for improving their behavior. Smiles and praise are just as much a part of the PROGRAM as frowns and discipline.

The young adults start each session by reciting a statement acknowledging responsibility for their actions � a program tenet.

"There are no excuses. She holds the kids accountable," said Bolingbrook police Sgt. Tom Ross, a former detective and the department's public information officer who is familiar with HEART.

Tuesdays are for general lessons created by Robinson like, "Know the Law Before It Knows You," that familiarize kids with the justice system, introduce them to proper behavior, and motivate them to live better.

"You act like a man, you will suffer the consequences of a man," Robinson reminded male students.

Fridays are more relaxed and are reserved for dinner and a movie � but not the fun kind. Kids eat pizza and watch and discuss documentaries on the court system and prison.

Controlling anger
Thursdays are rough.
That is when Leonard Ingram, a psychotherapist who founded the Anger Institute of Chicago and Angermgmt.com Online Counseling Services, conducts anger management classes.

"Everybody gets angry," Ingram told kids. "The problem is the mismanagement of your anger."

Robinson met Ingram, whose operations are based in Bolingbrook, when he was a guest on her show, and she later asked him to join HEART.

Ingram's lecture portion helps participants realize the motivation behind their crimes and attitudes.

"Violence is not an emotion. Violence is something you do when you don't have control over those emotions," Ingram said.

The adolescents also study other factors affecting their mental health, including environment and upbringing.

Ingram's goal is to instill in kids "heart," or the emotional and moral resiliency to tolerate and tackle problems positively.

"If you are going to make it, you've got to develop some heart," he reminded TEENS.

Though Thursdays are emotionally draining, students said they like them best.

"It helps you see things. It makes you smart," said one 16-year-old participant.

Needed support
Whether they realize it, the kids enrolled in HEART want one thing: attention. Quality time can drastically change the attitude of a seemingly tough TEEN, staff said. "You get them in there, and you find out they are a loving kid who wants someone's attention," said Donna Tillman, a HEART volunteer. "Something as simple as that can totally change that kid around."
But HEART's staff isn't just battling for control during the time students are in the program; they fight outside influences, including home life.

"If you don't nip it here, parents, they'll be on their way (to jail)," Robinson tells parents, inviting them to attend classes with their children.

Few show up.

"A lot of them drop (kids) off and don't come back," Robinson said.

"That is a big part of the problem."

Unless the teens are able to develop the "heart" that Ingram talks about, the hard work at HEART can unravel once they walk out the door.

Even the students realize that.

"I think I'll be a little bit worried when I leave," the 15-year-old participant said.

So Robinson steps up again.

She takes the kids bowling, to the barber or a make-up party on the weekend. Each hour with her is an hour out of trouble.

Robinson also stands beside her teens in court, sometimes when parents can't or won't.

"I just don't think it's right for a child to be standing in the law of the land alone," she said.

'Success stories'
The uniforms, lessons and time all lead up to one thing: the teen's final day in court.
"My ultimate goal is to get your case dismissed," Robinson tells the class.

Then the kids are out on their own.

Robinson said she can't track whether the students re-offend in other communities, but she does know that within the village of Bolingbrook, HEART has an 80 percent success rate.

Others have noticed as well.

"There are so many great success stories from the PROGRAM," Ross said.

For example, Tillman became a volunteer after the organization helped her 18-year-old son.

And though Maria Zuno's son, Jesus, needed additional intervention after HEART, she thinks highly of Robinson's work. Jesus Zuno even spoke to participants recently on the dangers of a street life.

"I think it's a wonderful program for these young adults," Maria Zuno said.

Money tight
Running the organization doesn't just take a lot of heart � it costs money.
Robinson is grateful Bolingbrook officials let her use village facilities. Her office is a converted closet, her classroom the nearby courtroom, and her storage space, the judge's chambers.

Informational posters are tattered at the edges and filled with thumbtack holes from use and reuse.

The supply of shirts and ties she keeps for less-fortunate students are hand-me-downs from judges and police officers.

And the PROGRAM couldn't run without its numerous volunteers.

Still Robinson needs much more.

Robinson would like a bus to take children on field trips to the jail, courthouse and out to play. She also needs more male mentors and a bilingual staff member.

And, on top of it all, her main source of funding � a $59,000 annual three-year grant from the Department of Human Services � will expire this summer.

That grant and the fees paid by students fund the bulk of the program and pay Robinson and two staff members.

She has received a handful of small grants and is currently seeking additional dollars.

While HEART won't shut down if more funding doesn't appear by July, the program will be greatly limited.

"We are going to have to severely cut back on some things," Robinson said.

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