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Helping Hands of Youth: a duluth parks beautification program

Duluth looks prettier this summer thanks to 50 teenagers who worked very hard to make it that way. In the process, many of them changed their lives. "I would say that about 80 percent of the kids I worked with had a complete turn around," said Br...

Duluth looks prettier this summer thanks to 50 teenagers who worked very hard to make it that way.
In the process, many of them changed their lives.
"I would say that about 80 percent of the kids I worked with had a complete turn around," said Brad Buhr, one of the project managers for Helping Hands of Youth, a program started by Connie Johnson that takes at-risk teen-agers and teaches them old-fashioned values and work ethics by working on beautification projects around the city.
"They came a long way with the program," Buhr said. "They want to see if they can make a difference. It's been a learning experience for me, too. I couldn't say enough good about the program from my end."
Many of the teen-agers who attended the Helping Hands of Youth award picnic on Saturday couldn't help being proud of what they accomplished.
They knew very well that their attitudes about themselves and others had changed over the summer as they planted trees, mulched flower beds or recoated the surface of the paths on the Lakewalk, rain or shine.
"I've accomplished a lot of my goals," said Tiffany, 13, as she sat beside her parents at a picnic table at Park Point last Saturday during the award picnic for Helping Hands of Youth. "I used to be really rude to people. They helped me realize what was going on around me. I've learned to respect my peers. I realized that maybe I should change my act around."
"She's happier and more open and willing to do different things," said Jessica, her best friend, who had joined the family at the table.
"She's learning to deal with her problems," said Tiffany's mother, Judi Walters.
"Yeah, she talks about them now rather than hides them," Jessica said.
Tiffany just smiled. "I've made more friends," she said. "I'm trying hard to be more positive about things."
That's exactly what this program is designed to do -- help at risk teen-agers develop a sense of accomplishment and work ethics that will help them as they grow up, Johnson said.
Johnson said she started the project three years ago because she wanted to help at-risk youths get out of the judicial system. "It was based on my own experience with my own sons," she said.
So she contacted Tom Kasper, Duluth's city gardener, and asked him if he had any gardening projects that teen-ager volunteers could work on during the summer.
Kasper said he was tickled with the offer and came up with lots of different projects. The youths, who worked under adult supervision, have done excellent work over the past three years, he said.
This summer alone, the youth volunteers planted more than 500 trees and shrubs in Lincoln Park as part of a native habitat project, mulched and weeded the city's gardens on the Lakewalk and Canal Park, built a retaining wall at the Park Point community center, and planted a garden in front of the building. They also recoated the sidewalk on the Lakewalk to protect the surface.
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"We could not be getting done what we're getting done to maintain the park system in Duluth without assistance from groups like Helping Hands of Youth. They're one of our main partners in park improvements." he said.
One of the interesting components of the program is that many of the youths are developing new respect for the environment around them.
Bob Stahlman, 17, said he used to be one of the kids who scribbled graffiti all over the surfaces in Lincoln Park and vandalized the gardens there. "I was one of the hoodlums in Lincoln Park," he said. "But I've learned how much hard work it takes to make it beautiful. Before, I had an attitude. I didn't care all that much. I didn't care how much hard work it took to beautify it."
He also learned how to be a leader, he said. In fact, Stahlman was one of seven who received the top award at the picnic, the award of excellence.
"They always told me that I was a group leader, but I had my doubts," he said. "When I tried to be one, everyone ignored me."
"But you kept trying," said Chuck Stahlman, Bob's father. "That was a cool thing."
Developing leadership skills through mediating conflicts in the group as they did their volunteer work also taught self-esteem, said Keera, 17, who also received an award of excellence. "I learned that I can be a very good helper, and that I will be successful in future employment," she said. "I feel different -- more responsible. I can actually get things done and be respectful of people."
Johnson said Kasper has a number of projects for the youths to work on this fall and winter, if they want to.
"They'll do work projects every week, but they'll be after school."
The fall and winter program is still open for interested teen-agers, she said. For more information, call 726-1902.

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