For the past couple of years, a small program at the Montgomery County Health Department (MCHD) has been having a big impact on the future of Montgomery County youth.
CHOOSE NOW is aimed at helping individuals 18 years old and under who are experiencing negative social issues, anything from disrespecting authority to minor theft, to medical problems.
With the assistance of several leaders in the community, including mental health and law enforcement personnel, youths who go through CHOOSE NOW are exposed to the possible long-term consequences of their actions. At the same time, they are given much needed support in the hope of positively influencing their future choices.
"This program is similar to the popular television show 'Beyond Scared Straight' that aims at keeping our kids out of a life in the legal system," says Randy Thompson, group leader and counselor at MCHD. "We understand that growing up is a hard time in life and that young people are faced with many challenges -- peer pressure, drugs, alcohol, violence and more -- that can easily affect a person's life in negative ways."
Thompson said that while CHOOSE NOW is not as in-your-face as the TV show, the local participants are exposed to real situations and individuals.
The six-session program begins with each "client" taking a 26-question test that asks, for example, how they spend free time, who their role models are, what their freedom means to them, and if they, both in the present and in the future, want to be admired by others.
From that point on, the real lessons begin. The young clients get a first-hand tour of the county jail, being led back to the holding cells by Undersheriff Rick Robbins, Captain Craig Foster and other law officers while family members are left in the lobby.
"We immediately ask them what their malfunction is," said Capt. Foster, adding that the jail staff holds nothing back when it comes to the tour.
"The kids get the full treatment," he said. "We do a lot of things to get their attention, like putting them in a holding cell alone and encouraging actual inmates to be vocal while we walk the halls."
Both Foster and Robbins also talk to the youths about different methods police have at their disposal to correct behavior problems, such as mace and what is affectionately named the "Get Right" chair, a wheelchair like device with restraints on the feet, legs, arms, hands, waist and shoulders.
The tour concludes with a trip to the visitation booth, where the adult family members and the kids sit on opposite sides of a thick glass pane and can only speak by using a phone.
"We've had several times when both the youths and their family come out of the visitation booth crying," said Foster. "Most of the kids who come through this program have authority issues, mostly with their family, and we try to push them in the right way, because there won't be anyone else there to catch them if they fall."
Robbins echoed Foster, saying, "This program is as much for the child's parents and support system as it is for the child. Having a working family is about teamwork. We tell the kids that a key to bettering their lives is by listening to and respecting their family, because if they choose the path that finds them in trouble with the law, even if it is for something minor at first, it's a very hard path to get off."
Another step in CHOOSE NOW has each client paired with a mentor from the Continuing Recovery Center (CRC) in Irving. Residents of CRC, a drug and alcohol substance abuse rehabilitation center, give the kids a nonjudgmental person to talk with and also provide some real life stories.
Many of these mentors are not too far removed from their own childhoods, including Kodi, 28, Amber, 23, and Cody, 24.
These three CRC residents are working to heal their bodies after years of drug and alcohol abuse, which they all say began as a part of trying to "fit in" while going through school -- a choice that, even with all they have lost and missed, they do not regret.
"If my story can help change just one kid, then it will make up for all the past hardships in my life," said Amber, a native of Collinsville. "There's so much more to life."
Amber said she has used "pretty much every drug out there" since beginning at age 12. Her time in CRC is her second attempt at sobriety after a relapse with heroin.
Amber admits that she sees a lot of herself in the 14-year-old client she is mentoring.
"Being a mentor takes me back to when I was their age and facing the peer pressures they have," she said. "It doesn't take much to influence a young person's life, so surround them with as many positive influences as possible."
Cody, from the small town of Browning, is at CRC voluntarily to overcome his addiction to meth, benzos and opiates, and to be able to see his son again. He attributes his fall into addiction to a lack of structure and role models in his life.
"I'm excited to be a part of the program," he said. "Every kid needs a role model. I hope that I can help any youth avoid the path in life that I took. I was so sick and tired of being sick and tired."
Kodi, from Pontiac, is going through her second round as a CHOOSE NOW mentor. A recovering meth, cocaine and alcohol addict, she said, "You can only do so much before you have to suffer your own consequences. Getting caught saved my life."
Tammy, a former Montgomery County resident who now lives in Effingham, credits CHOOSE NOW with helping her son adapt to living with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
"My son was 9 years old when he went through the course," she said, adding that he suffered from intermittent explosive episodes which made him fly off the handle with the slightest provocation. "Going though the program was a very eye opening experience. It helped him learn how to stop and think before he acted, and now his behavior is vastly different than before."
Tammy said that before the program, her son, now 11, would have numerous incidents when he had to be restrained, ocassionally resulting in seizures. The past school year, he required restraints only once and will start playing flag football this fall. If the improvements continue, Tammy said her son should be able to enroll in a mainstream school for the 2014-15 school year.
While the CRC mentors and CHOOSE NOW leaders come from different towns, backgrounds and life experiences, they offer the following advice to parents of children showing unacceptable behaviors: "You are not alone. Ask questions even if it takes several times for your child to answer. Most importantly, listen to what they have to say. Do not write anything off."
For more information about the Montgomery County Health Department and the various programs and services it offers, visit their website at www.montgomeryco.com/health, or call either 217-532-2001 or 217-324-3430. The main office location for the MCHD is at 11191 IL Rt. 185 in Hillsboro with a satellite location at 317 W. Union in Litchfield.