Today is Valentine’s Day. Sweethearts are showing each other how much they care. Teens have composed love tweets and given each other gigantic stuffed animals. Children have tucked “Star Wars” and “Frozen” Valentines in classmates’ desks and gorged on suckers, candy hearts and cupcakes. This celebration of Cupid isn’t so happy for everyone, though. For youth spending Valentine’s Day in the Lowndes County Juvenile Detention Center and similar facilities, it’s a day much like any other in custody.
Lowndes County 4-H members decided to reach out in any way they could to the 10 boys and girls, ages 12 to 18, currently serving time in the Detention Center. They chose to send “Love” bags, paper sacks stuffed with an assortment of items most people would take for granted — toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, inspirational books, word-find games, pencils, pens, tissues, candy. But for someone in detention, the 4-H’ers hope the simple bags will carry a positive message.
“We want them to know they’re thought of and cared for,” said 4-H’er Hunter Brooks, 14.
“We want youth to know there are some positive organizations out there where they can find that belonging, that safe place that they’re looking for. Young people so much need that,” said Mississippi State University Extension Agent Sharon Patrick, who works with the Lowndes 4-H program.
The youth development organization designed for 5- to 18-year-olds offers projects in wide-ranging fields, from plant sciences to robotics, from public speaking to animal husbandry. The emphasis is on leadership, personal growth, service and four “essential elements” — belonging, independence, mastery and generosity. These principles are embedded throughout the 4-H experience.
From the courtroom
Jason Collins is the Lowndes County Youth Court Administrator. He serves as a liaison between law enforcement agencies and the court. Collins has seen a stream of youth face a judge to answer for offenses that can include property damage, malicious mischief, burglary, drugs and assault. Those sent to the Detention Center can be as young as 10. They come from Lowndes, Oktibbeha, Clay and surrounding counties. In a society where positive influences are sometimes few and far between, he can appreciate the 4-H members’ effort.
“Certainly having programs like the 4-H come through here is good for the kids. It breaks up their routine, they feel like they’re cared for, and hopefully they take something from it,” Collins said.
The Youth Court system strives for “what’s in the best interest of the child,” the administrator continued. There is time allotted to schooling, with a full-time teacher and special education teachers brought in. And if, after assessment, it’s determined an individual needs mental health treatment or substance abuse treatment, the treatment takes precedence over detention.
“We access those things for them,” said Collins. The goal is to keep youth out of the adult system, to keep them from becoming career offenders.
Jayne Noggle is a volunteer leader with the 4-H Dixie Riders horse and livestock club. Her own children came up in 4-H; now she has grandchildren involved. She firmly believes the program has had a positive impact.
“They learn responsibility and good sportsmanship. It gives them something to stay focused on besides TV, videos and hanging out,” she said. The atmosphere is that of an extended family.
Noggle hopes the Valentine bags let some young boy or girl know somebody is thinking about them. Patrick agrees. As an Extension agent, she is passionate about youth finding a sense of self-worth and values that serve them, and their communities, well. She hopes every teen in the Detention Center will eventually walk out the doors determined to choose a better path. Perhaps some will look into what 4-H has to offer.
“It can help youth connect and find their purpose in life,” she said.
4-H member Haileigh Brooks may have summed it up best. When asked what she would like recipients to feel when they receive their Valentine sacks, the 14-year-old thought for a moment. She then smiled and answered softly, “Blessed.”
Editor’s note: To learn more about 4-H, contact Extension Agent Sharon Patrick, 662-251-4519, visit 4-h.org or the 4-H Youth link at msucares.com.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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