August, 18 2018

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Troubled teens turn to ... quilting

Volunteer Penny Larrisey had her share of skeptics when she offered to teach delinquent boys to sew quilts.

“Boys and quilts just don't seem to be a natural fit,” said Bucks County Commissioner Charley Martin.

“I didn't think it would go over too well with the kids,” said Jason Moore of the county's Youth Study Center.

“I thought it was corny,” said a 15-year-old boy who was committed to the center's residential treatment program four months ago.

But he and the other teens say quilting teaches focus and teamwork and, perhaps more importantly, donating their handiwork earns them recognition and boosts their self-esteem.

Plus, they don't have a choice. Community service is mandatory for 12- to 18-year-old boys enrolled in the program — a treatment-based way to help them cope with the problems that led them to commit crimes.

They've given quilts to men and women in the military, victims of Hurricane Katrina, 13 staffers at the center and Ashley Zauflik, the 17-year-old Falls girl seriously injured in a school bus crash earlier this year. They've also made quilted pillowcases for patients at Doylestown Hospital and the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and nearly 300 tissue holders for Neshaminy Manor, the county-run nursing home.

This year, the boys should surpass last year's total of 77 quilts with a plan to make quilts for each bed in the center. They are also writing letters to injured soldiers to send along with patriotic-themed quilts made specifically for them.

“I wouldn't say it's hard,” said 18-year-old Randy, who's been placed in the program twice and hopes to attend automotive training school. “It takes a while, but it's fun. And if you do it right you get a sense of accomplishment.”

The 11 boys, whose infractions range from probation violations to aggravated assault, live in the county's maximum security Youth Study Center at the Neshaminy Manor complex in Doylestown Township. The facility also houses up to 48 juveniles detained while they await court hearings.

Both sets of young people bunk in tiny rooms that open up into large units where they spend much of their free time. But the detention side is stark in comparison to the residential unit, where colorful posters hang on the walls. Potted plants, books and personal items — a stuffed animal and guitar were in one room — add to the homey feel.

“It doesn't even seem like a placement,” said 17-year-old Wayne, who started the program three weeks ago. “It seems more like a place to settle down for a little bit.”

An average day includes classes, group therapy, exercise and activities, which could be anything from fishing to board games.

Wayne pays fines associated with his crime, works toward his GED and has done other types of community service, such as picking up litter along the highway in Quakertown in cold weather.

“With garbage, you know it's helping the community,” he said. “But making quilts for sick kids or soldiers in Iraq, it feels good. It's serving a purpose.”

Still, Wayne thought he'd “mess it up” when Larrisey and the other boys showed him how to feed fabric rectangles into sewing machines. Once the boys string together long panels, Larrisey sews them together and adds trim while her husband, Bob, sews an intricate swirl over the pillowcases and quilts big enough for a single bed.

She met the boys two years ago when a counselor at the center started looking for community service projects to help veterans and recruited Bob Larrisey, the incoming commander of VFW Post 3258 in Chalfont.

Since then, county commissioners have allocated $2,500 to the volunteer-run program, and state lawmakers have praised the boys.

Penny Larrisey, a longtime crafter who the kids jokingly call “General Penny,” brings them cookies during their four-hour-long Friday sessions.

She doesn't want to interfere with their treatment, but some of her animated personality can't help but rub off.

For example, when a boy tells her he “doesn't want to” or “can't” do something, she simply replies, “That's not in my vocabulary.”

She's uninterested in what landed them in detention.

“Why they're there, that is none of my business,” she said. “I'm there to teach them how to quilt.”

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Bush Declares War On Rising Youth Gang Violence 4/07/05

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