Learning Life

Kevin W. holds a snake from East Coast Wildlife during the AMIKids program recently.

You may not have heard of AMIKids unless a teen family member is in trouble with the law.

AMIKids started out as a group of marine institutes in South Florida in 1969, providing vocational training in marine-related fields to at-risk youth. AMI stands for Associative Marine Institute.

Established in 2006 in Volusia County, the program is dedicated to helping children discover their potential, transform their lives and strengthen the community.

“We are kind of like the last stop before a kid is going to go to a residential program,” said Kathryn Haynes, executive director for AMIKids Volusia. “Sometimes a judge does court order the youth to come here.”

The Volusia program has a maximum enrollment of 30 children. Staffers work with the children from 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. From 4 to 6 p.m., they do structured evening activities, including community service.

“We go out into the community and try to help out,” Ms. Haynes said.

The children work at nursing homes, the Halifax Humane Society, Second Harvest Food Bank. The program also is considering daycare centers.

The private, non-profit program operates four to six months a year, serving boys and girls ages 13 to 18 who have committed a variety of non-violent offenses and are involved with the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice.

The staff works with children and their families to address issues both in and outside the home, focusing on education, behavior modification and treatment.

“At first when I was coming in here, I was kind of ‘iffy’ because it’s a long day,” said program participant Michael Stevens, 16. “It doesn’t give me a lot of freedom. But this program has really helped me through the long run. For a while I couldn’t get clean. Now I am on a month clean of anything. It really did help me there.”

Not only has he cleaned up his act, Michael has become more involved in school and community service.

“I think it was a really good process for me. I definitely will be able to maintain that,” he said. “Going to school is a lot more important than people think. It was a long journey and I am slowly creeping toward the end, but I’ve (gotten) a lot from this place.”

Michael will be a high school junior when he leaves AMIkids. He is interested in architecture and wants to go to college.

The program is a combination of school and counseling, Ms. Haynes said. Any school credits earned transfer back to any Volusia County schools. As substance abuse offenses are prevalent, substance abuse counseling is offered along with anger management.

A vocational program also is offered, including resume building and how to dress for success. Staff offer support to employers once a youth obtains employment. Behavior management is taught all day long.

“The ultimate goal is to get them off probation and get them back into their school and get their credits up or their grades up so they are in good standing at school,” Ms. Haynes said. “Our kids have made bad choices and we’re trying to help them overcome those choices and get on the right track. We are doing Saturday activities where we always invite the families. We are working on doing some guest speakers for the families, parenting classes, first aid, classes, things like that.”

Volunteer Georgianne “Georgi” McAllister has worked at foster care facilities, domestic violence centers, visitation centers, group boys homes, and with the homeless for more than 30 years.

“One of my absolute favorite places to work is AMIKids in Daytona Beach, Ms. McAllister said. “I began as an AmeriCorps employee. That was 15 months ago. I learned that the staff was totally dedicated to these high school students who were court ordered to attend this alternative school. When my year with AmeriCorps was over, I stayed with AMIkids as a volunteer.

“I have learned many things from volunteering at AMIkids, she said. “One of the biggest things is that one gets respect when one gives it. The students have learned that I take the time to really listen to their needs and concerns. Many times, all they want is to know that someone really hears what they have to say.”

The AMIkids Day Treatment program model has proven effective, recognized by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and the U.S. Department of Justice.

Volunteers are always needed as well as donations of money, clothing and food. The program is trying to find a better space for its operations.

For more information, visit amikids.org or call (386) 274-5786.

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