Youths Tell How Center Saved Them Governor Moved By Pleas, Says He'll Protect Program

December 28, 1990|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

Coby Seidel believes he could be back on the streets, hooked on drugs and desperately looking for the next high, if he hadn't come to the Harundale Youth & Family Service Center.

Without two years of free counseling and support, the Old Mill High School senior says he easily might have slipped back into his old habits.

He credits the center with helping him fight a fatal attraction to alcohol and drugs.

Now, Seidel in turn has helped save the 22-year-old counseling program, along with 21 other Youth Service Bureaus in Maryland.

The sandy-haired 18-year-old was one of a half-dozen former clients who returned to the Glen Burnie center Wednesday afternoon to urge Gov. William Donald Schaefer to avoid cutting the state-subsidized program.

After listening to stories of youths like Seidel, Schaefer promised to find money "somewhere in the budget" to keep the popular counseling and recreation centers open.

At least 17 of the 22 centers were expected to close Feb. 1 due to a cost-cutting measure proposed by the state Department of Juvenile Services.

To help trim the burgeoning $423 million state deficit, the agency announced last week it would stop supporting the centers.

Since the state usually underwrites 75 percent of their operating budgets, most of the youth centers, including both in Anne Arundel County, predicted they would have to close their doors.

When Adel O'Rourke, a counselor who is now director of the center in the Harundale Mall, heard the news, she immediately picked up the phone and began calling the board of directors, former clients and youth advocates in Anne Arundel County.

By the end of last week, she had collected a stack of petitions and letters begging Schaefer to avoid cutting the program. She delivered them to the governor's office Friday and invited Schaefer to visit before making a decision.

"Apparently, he was impressed with my advocacy," O'Rourke said Wednesday, a few minutes before Schaefer arrived to tour the Harundale center at 4:30 p.m.

O'Rourke met privately with the governor for about 15 minutes and then called in three former clients to tell him their stories. One of them was DeShonta Contee, 22, of Crownsville, who suffered from life-threatening eating disorders when she came to the center four years ago.

"If it wasn't for this program, I would probably be another statistic," Contee said. When she was referred to the center by a school guidance counselor, the 5-foot 3-inch student at Arundel Senior High only weighed 85 pounds and was severely depressed.

Contee, who is married now and has a baby daughter, said she still stops by occasionally to chat with a counselor when she feels blue. Just knowing the center is there, she said, makes her feel secure.

Her description of her 1 -year struggle to overcome anorexia and bulimia, and her heart-felt praise of the counseling program, seemed to persuade the governor, O'Rourke said.

"I think what really convinced him were those stories," she said. "By the end of the (visit), he had softened a lot. I think we made a good case for why the program shouldn't be eliminated."

As he left the center, the governor gave both Contee and O'Rourke a big hug in front of the television cameras. He said he thought "there's no question that she (O'Rourke) saved that young person's life."

O'Rourke and other supporters argued that the centers are cost-effective because they provide family counseling, tutoring and recreation programs for troubled youths. Without the free services, many more youths might attempt suicide, continue abusing drugs or wind up in expensive juvenile detention centers, the proponents said.

"We consider ourselves a prevention group," said Ruth Tillett, director of the Annapolis Youth Service Bureau, the second center in the county.

Schaefer agreed that the price of such prevention seemed low. And after Audrey Moore, director of the Northwest Baltimore Youth Service Bureau, pointed out that the city and neighboring suburbs were unlikely to pick up the slack, the governor ruled out the cut.

"I'm going to try to find the money," he said, pledging to keep the centers open at least through June. "I'm going to save this program. You can bet on it."

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