By Jane Smith
Special to the Tribune
When Academy Theatre Director Cynthia Bivens received an email message from Don Herman last fall asking if she had any projects that volunteers could do, she immediately said yes and started thinking of all the possibilities.
Like any organization with limited staff, the Academy Theatre had all kinds of jobs. Herman, a director at Lee Prep Academy, a program operating within the Vision Quest program, has been bringing groups of young men — anywhere from three to five — to volunteer twice a week at the local theater since November.
Vision Quest is a program for at-risk youth that is licensed to serve the youth. The youth are ordered by the court system to participate in the program as a means to help them get back on the proper track rather than sending them to prison.
In addition to helping youth, Herman said one of the missions of his organization is to give back to the community. Students are at Vision Quest for up to six months. Herman’s role is to meet the needs of the students by enrolling them in special programs — be it to earn a high school diploma through the General Equivalency Diploma (GED) program to woodworking, culinary and others.
Vision Quest operates a facility near Blooming Valley that houses 32 youth — all male.
Although the Academy has several projects for the youth, the most recent project was rather simple — putting away Christmas decorations. The three young men quickly moved inside the theater and received their instructions for the two-hour work session. Garbage bags of decorations had to be taken from the first floor to the second floor for storage. On the second floor, one of the young men had been named the foreman and was tasked with telling the others where to put the items.
The trio made quick work of the chore. They made the job look easy as they ran up the stairs, carrying the bags. They also learned the art of teamwork when a larger box had to be handled by two of them and delicately moved around a corner.
Although the work wasn’t particularly challenging, it was fun for the young men as they also got to tour the theater and look behind the scenes to see what is involved in putting on a production.
Bivens said she has been trying to get the theater organized and the group from the Lee Prep Academy has helped with that.
Woodworking skills — learned at Vision Quest’s wood shop — are being put to use as they have been building storage shelves and other storage space in the basement. Sets (scenery) for the theater productions were built, and the workers are developing the work space to make it more efficient.
Where once tools were strewn all over the theater, a new storage space is being built — just for tools. Outlines of each tool are being drawn on a peg board so those who use the tools will know exactly to where they are returned.
The trio which was working recently all have or will receive various training, including the culinary and woodworking programs. All three are from Philadelphia.
Aaron Butcher, 20, has earned his culinary certifications in Safe Serve and Occupational Safety Hazard Administration (OSHA), which gives him the credentials he needs to work in restaurants. He leaves the facility soon and is exploring ideas for a future career.
Butcher likes the idea of working in the culinary field but also is thinking of retail sales or getting his license to become a barber.
Isaac Baptiste, 19, hopes to go to Slippery Rock University to play football and be a running back on the team. He isn’t certain yet what he major he wants to study.
Shiheed Jones, 19, has been working in the wood shop and is certified to operate several pieces of the professional equipment. With the certification, he can go to a construction site and operate the various types of power equipment.
“It’s been a good experience,” Butcher said of his stay at Vision Quest, citing the educational opportunities he has received. “I accomplished a lot while I was here.”
Students who work in the wood shop are paid $6.25 an hour. Those who do general maintenance work get paid less, but the idea is to teach students marketable skills.
While the students are working, it is not all work and no play. For example, Herman said he brought a group to the Academy to see the film “White Christmas” last month. One student told him how “cool” the movie was — never having seen it before. Since most of the students are from the inner city, Herman said many are acquainted with life in a rural area that many in this area may take for granted. One example was round bales of hay. They had never seen them nor did they know what they were.
Although students are volunteering their services at the Academy this month, they also have volunteered at the Meadville Community Soup Kitchen, the Meadville YMCA, Saegertown Area Library and others. In return for the work at the YMCA, students are permitted to play basketball and other games at the YMCA. At the library, students worked eight hours one day, moving books from old shelves to new ones.
Herman said the program has been good for the young men and he is proud of how well they do. He said after students have spent time at one site on numerous occasions, “they take ownership.”
They recognize the value to the community, Herman said. While they work hard, he said it is important that the adults involved realize that for the most part “they are 18 and 19 — still teenagers. They still want to have fun. They fool around, but they listen and we limit the horseplay,” Herman said.
Herman invites organizations which could use the help of young men to contact him at 337-0924 and arrangements can be made to schedule a crew. To him, such help benefits not only the organization but also the students. It helps them see the various opportunities available to them and helps them learn the valuable lessons achieved working with others, following directions and learning new skills.
When that happens, it is good for all involved.