TECUMSEH — On a sprawling campus in this Pottawatomie County city, young men eat, sleep and attend school.
What sets this place apart from a boarding school or a camp is the fence that surrounds it — and the fact that the youths must stay there.
The residents at the Central Oklahoma Juvenile Center are confined to this facility because of the crimes they committed.
However, as juveniles, once they complete the requirements of their stay, they will be released to go back to the neighborhoods and communities they came from.
Jerry Fry, the center’s director, said he and his staff are working to help the young men return to society better than they were before — and society can play a part in aiding these youths as well.
Shannon Hazen, the center’s volunteer coordinator, said these young people are in dire need of male role models to help guide them on the right, productive path. She said the center is seeking men to participate in a mentoring program that hopes to pair the center’s residents with someone from the community who cares about them and wants to see them succeed.
Hazen said she’s trying to make sure these young men are not forgotten.
Youths from across the state are housed at the center, but the majority are from Oklahoma and Tulsa counties, she said.
“Because we’re in Tecumseh, they’re just sort of out of sight, out of mind,” she said. “We might be in Tecumseh, but we have people from your neighborhood who are here and who need you.”
Meeting the need
The youths attend school at the center complex and have a program they must adhere to, with various levels that help staff monitor their progress, Hazen said.
For example, youths in the center’s Honors Unit have a comfortable recreation room-like facility to use, and many of them are allowed to go on trips to places such as Oklahoma City Thunder All-Star forward Kevin Durant’s restaurant in Bricktown, a contemporary Christian music concert and several metro-area churches for Sunday services. Also, she said the youths have performed 11 community service projects in the past six months.
Now all that is needed is more adults to guide them as they prepare for life outside the campus.
Hazen said she has recruited several men to serve as mentors, but many more are needed.
Fry said there are 67 youths at the medium-security center.
“These kids can get on the right path with the right guidance and support,” Fry said.
“Once you strip everything away, they’re kids.”
Hazen said men must be at least 18 and must submit to a background check to become a mentor at the center. Mentors are strongly encouraged to commit to meeting with the youth while he is at the center and continuing the relationship after he is released, she said.
Hazen and Fry said men with troubled pasts will not automatically be disqualified. In fact, these men may be well equipped to steer the center’s residents back on track, Fry said.
“Sometimes folks who have walked that path are ideal,” he said. “They just need a willingness to make a positive difference in a young person’s life.”
‘That’s all they know’
Hazen and Fry said the youths are very receptive to mentors.
They said, ideally, the young men could rely on a strong family unit to help them as they re-enter society, but many come from family environments and circumstances that are less than ideal.
He said 76 percent of the residents come from a single-parent home, and 86 percent struggle with substance abuse.
Sam Crilly, 42, of Moore, visits the center on Wednesdays as a volunteer chaplain.
He said most of the young men really want someone to talk to about issues in their lives and how they can create a better future for themselves.
“They have been living their lives in the way they have because that’s all they know,” Crilly said.
“They’re starving for manly influence — for good influence.”
For more information about the Central Oklahoma Juvenile Center’s Mentors Program, call Shannon Hazen at 598-4134.