Closing dampens celebration Careers Center cut from budget

June 20, 1993|By John Rivera | John Rivera,Staff Writer

Under the shade of a grove of trees in front of the Careers Center building in Crownsville, 15 once-troubled youths celebrated their graduation Friday from the program that many said helped turn their lives around.

But the traditional congratulatory speeches about hope for the future, a staple of graduation ceremonies, were accompanied by eulogies for the program itself.

The Careers Center, a victim of the budget ax wielded by County Executive Robert R. Neall, will close its doors at the end of the month. Friday's graduating class was its last.

The tone for the ceremony -- the $1,000 tab for which was picked up by five center employees -- was set by the invocation given by the Rev. Peter Caputo, rector of St. Charles the Martyr Anglican Church in Crownsville.

Father Caputo prayed "to Almighty God that somebody will have the sense to turn around and reinstate this school because of its importance to this county."

The Careers Center is an alternative sentencing program that teaches job and communications skills to troubled youths.

Mr. Neall this year decided not to fund the $333,660 program, ignoring the accolades it has received from county judges and some elected officials, several of whom pleaded with the county executive to change his mind.

Mr. Neall, who had proposed killing the center last year, said such juvenile services fall under the state's jurisdiction. He also pointed to a study he commissioned that found no clear evidence the program led to lower rates of repeat offenses than placing youths on probation.

But to the people who gathered at the last graduation ceremony, there was no questioning the Careers Center's effectiveness and the dedication of its staff.

"This should not be the end of the Careers Center, the end of a program that has done so much for the children and the citizens of this community. We deserve better," said Erica J. Wolfe, a juvenile court master who was the featured graduation speaker. Ms. Wolfe fought hard to keep the program, testifying on its behalf at County Council budget hearings.

"What you, the staff, deserved were commendations. What you got were terminations," she said.

"Now that we are facing the end of an era, those of you graduating today face an additional burden," she said. "You are the last class to be able to go forth and prove all the doubters wrong. It is on your shoulders that the reputation of the Careers Center will finally rest.

"It is a big challenge, but not a big burden, because you couldn't be here today if you had not already met and overcome even greater challenges."

State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee also praised the Careers Center and lamented its closing.

"It is a shame, it is tragic, that the current administration of this county has seen fit to close it," Mr. Weathersbee said. "And speaking as a state's attorney, without programs like this, my job is much more difficult. Crime in the county will rise, not decline."

He turned to George Surgeon, the Careers Center director for 14 years. "George, I am sorry to see you go," he said. "And I hope with the next county executive, that you will be back here with us."

Kimberly Mackall, one of four graduating students to address the crowd, was just happy Mr. Neall did not close the center last year.

"I would like to thank the County Council for keeping the Careers Center open for one more year," she said. "It helped me turn my life around.

"As I leave the Careers Center today, I realize I am taking something that I did not bring. That's a new spirit, a new attitude and a new self-esteem."

Mario Pinkney, another one of the four graduates who spoke, thanked Mr. Surgeon because "he stayed on my back and made sure I did right." He walked over to Mr. Surgeon, who enveloped the youth in a bear hug.

"I don't think it's right for the Careers Center to close," Mr. Pinkney said. "You can look at the expressions on the graduating students' faces and see how it helped them."

After the ceremony, the graduates and their well-wishers greeted Mr. Surgeon one last time.

"Thanks a lot, Mr. Surgeon," Jadonathan Hall said as they shook hands. "I'm sorry that the school is closing."

Mr. Surgeon told him: "I want to see you go to college. You cado it."

Mr. Hall will begin classes at Anne Arundel Community College in the fall. He plans to become a computer software engineer.

"I'm not bitter," Mr. Surgeon said as the youth left. "I'm thankful for being able to work in a situation like this for 14 years . . . because I think it's enriched me very much."

But he insists the county had no justification for closing the center.

"A mistake was made, and I always will feel that way," he said.

The two Careers Center teachers who are merit employees will transfer to other departments in the county next month, but the other four contract employees will be out of work.

And the 71-year-old Mr. Surgeon, will retire -- but not quite yet. "I'm going to hopefully hook up with some organization that helps homeless people," he said. "I think they need someone to be an advocate for them."

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