Budget cuts may end troubled youth program

Published 12:02 am Thursday, May 12, 2016

NATCHEZ — Ten young, formerly troubled youth recently received a second chance.

Adolescent Opportunity Program Director Tracy Collins said he’s worried the program that gave the youth the second chance is likely to be cut on Friday when Gov. Phil Bryant is expected to sign proposed budget cuts into law.

“The state of Mississippi is doing a great disgrace to our children,” Collins said. “They want a smaller government, but they are doing it on the backs of our children.”

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The AOP is a three-step initiative to help troubled youth who have been involved in criminal activity learn new behaviors and coping skills, ultimately ending with turning their lives around.

After completing the year-long probation system, graduates become free to go about their lives without the eye of the juvenile justice system looking over their shoulders.

Adams County Youth Court Judge Walt Brown said he was pleased no one from this past year’s graduating class has been back through the court, and he hoped the same would be true of the class of 2016.

“The program is clearly working,” he said. “I think we are going to be losing a good program if the budget is cut.”

Brown said the state’s training schools do not have enough room for all of the troubled youth. Brown said the end of the AOP program could mean more youth had to be sent to jail, something he said would be regretful.

“I hope we are able to bring the program back,” he said. “It is a worthy cause.”

Of the 10 youths graduating, two wanted to be engineers, two welders, and the remainder wanted to be a state trooper, a soldier, an obstetrician, an off-shore driller, a diesel mechanic and a journalist.

One graduate said some days during the program she just wanted to break down and cry, but she’s glad she stuck with it. She credited God for giving her strength.

Another said he could feel the change within himself through the choices he has made.

“I want to thank the AOP staff,” he said. “There are things I do now that I’m not sure my old self would have done. Thanks for believing in me.”

New Natchez High School head football coach Ron Rigsby gave the graduation’s address. Rigsby started out by warning the class he was also a preacher and would not adhere to his allotted 10 minutes.

The coach said one thing about life is it’s always in motion.

“Life is a journey, and you cannot be still through it,” Rigsby said. “Even if you decide to not make a decision, you are still making a choice. The world will go on without you.

“Every decision you make carries a lot of weight, and you have to decide if you want to be moving in a good direction or a bad direction.”

Rigsby not only challenged students, but also the parents.

“If you are not providing your children with direction, you are failing them,” he said. “How can you expect a kid to do right if he doesn’t know what the right decision is?”

Robert Wallis, the Community Chapel Associate Pastor of Youth, showed up for one of the graduates who was from his congregation. Wallis said he was proud of all 10 for going through with the program.

“It has been a year in the making, and I can really tell the difference in him,” he said. “I did not even know until today the program is in danger. I think that’s a shame because it seems to work.”