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Black Belt youth to get discipline thanks to grant

A pair of grants awarded by the Governor’s office will go a long way towards helping troubled youth from Marengo, Hale, and Perry get started on the right track.

The grants, which total $141,741, have been awarded to Selma’s Varner Education and Training facility, or the VET.

Varner is, in the words of coordinator Ocie Acoff, “an educational and training facility with a flair of boot camp…What we do is take kids from our community and the Black Belt and catch them up to speed, and instill some discipline in their lives.”

In a public statement, Governor Riley noted the program’s high success rate as a major factor in the awarding of the grant.

“This program is geared towards reaching juveniles with minor disciplinary problems and aims to change their behavior before they commit more serious offenses,” he said. “I am pleased to assist this program that has already made a positive impact in the lives of so many.”

Acoff, who said one Marengo youth was enrolled in the program right now, said the grant would make a substantial difference in the VET’s ability to expand its coverage area.

“The grant will help us provide services to many other parts of the Black Belt,” he said. “Not only Dallas, but Marengo, Hale, and Perry as well. The grant assures us that we will be able to provide service to these areas at no cost to the county. We had applied for a larger grant, but we are certainly grateful to the Governor and those who helped us with the grant-writing process for what we did get.”

Acoff said those enrolled in the VET program are “males ages 12 to 18, who are mostly first-time offenders.” The program last eight weeks, during which time the participants rise at 5:30, engage in a physical activity, eat breakfast, and shower by 7:30, and then begin four hours of schooling. Afterwards, they work on “life skills” in afternoon workshops, in which they learn how to deal with peer pressure, interview for a job, or get extra help in math or reading. The focus on education means that the program’s participants can return to school without losing any school credit or falling behind their classmates.

Acoff said that while discipline is an important factor at the VET, it does not deserve to be labeled a “boot camp.”

“We are a non-secure facility,” he said. “There are no kind of restraints. We have minimum security…they do have to raise their hand to speak, and they have to say ‘Yes sir’ and ‘No sir.’ But we do not get in their face.”

Weekends at the VET are spent on furthering the participants’ “life skills” in seminars on topics like AIDS prevention or alcohol abuse, or in community service.

“We do a lot of cleaning up around schools and in our community,” Acoff said. “If there’s a cleaning project that needs to be done, even in Marengo County, we will come up and do it.”

At the conclusion of the eight weeks, the VET holds a “Family Day” at which the participants are reunited with their parents and VET staff work with parents on ways to help ensure the program’s lessons stick. Acoff says the program has indeed had a great deal of success.

“Our marks from an audit done by the Department of Youth Services were a 99 and a 100. I guess that’s pretty good,” he said with a laugh.

Funding for the grant was made available to the state through the U.S. Justice Department. The grant will be administered by the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs.