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Couple bring hope to lives of troubled kids
By CHRISTINE GRAEF
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 16, 2000
CLEARWATER -- The room looked like any classroom, with teenagers sitting around tables and leafing through books.
Except for the guards just outside the glass window.
The 9- to 18-year-olds who are sent to the Pinellas Regional Juvenile Detention Center have been charged with anything from petty theft to murder. Harold and Helen Roederer, volunteer chaplains for the center, see only untapped potential.
"Many people on the outside don't understand and don't care what's happening," said Harold Roederer, a retired aircraft maintenance manager who lives in Largo. "The response is often, "as long as they don't come near my home, I don't care.' I tell them, if you don't do something for them now, it will be you."
On a recent evening, Roederer, wearing jeans, sneakers and a red cotton shirt, walked down the hallways exchanging hugs with staff members.
Roederer, 84, and his wife, 77, don't believe in retirement. They say God did not give them life just to hang it up. For 17 years, the couple has been volunteering every week in the detention center, one of 22 in the state.
About 1,000 youths are sent there each year to await court action or placement in a commitment program. The average stay is 21 days.
"For many of them, this is the only time they get medical or prenatal care or mental health services," said Terence Bascom, JDC shift supervisor. "This is the only safe place some have known."
Every minute is structured. As soon as they enter, the residents are booked, frisked, stripped and treated for lice before being issued a light blue T-shirt, dark blue pants, socks, shoes, two blankets, two sheets and one pillow.
Boys must walk with their hands behind their backs and girls with their hands in front as cameras monitor every move. Bedtime is at 8 p.m. until later times are earned.
Bascom said consistency is what children need most. And the Roederers, he said, help provide it.
"They have children's needs, no matter how tough they may seem," Bascom said. "The Roederers fill a lot of that need. They are part of our team."
Center resident Amber Howell, 16, St. Petersburg, agreed.
"They made a big impression on me. They always listened and always got my hopes up," she said.
Sentenced to JDC as a runaway at age 11, Amber met Mrs. Roederer. It took several years, Amber said, until she realized it was time to change. With encouragement from Mrs. Roederer, Amber now plans to return to high school and hopes to become a nurse.
"Every time I think about it, I wonder why I was that bad. It wasn't cool at all," she said. "But Miss Helen kept with me. We spent a lot of time laughing and crying together. Even after I got out, she'd visit and take me to dinner. Sometimes when I get mad and my temper flares, I'll call them. I always know they're there and they care."
Autumn Loyot, 18, of Largo, agreed.
"That's what got to me -- they were always there," she said of the Roederers. "They talked real and put things in a way so kids understand."
Autumn was sent to detention for grand theft auto when she was 14. It was the first of nine times she was sent there during the next four years, including one stay of 42 days.
"There's not much anyone can do for a person like that," Autumn said. "But Helen and Harold kept talking to us anyway."
Now, Autumn has a earned a high school equivalency certificate and holds a steady job.
In the center, Mrs. Roederer ministers to the girls and her husband goes in with the boys, often with several of the 65 volunteers from area churches the couple has recruited. They occasionally bring Christian musical bands for entertainment.
On Mondays the Roederers leave a blank paper with their respective groups. Anyone writing their name will be visited on Tuesdays, the time set aside for private talks between 3:15 and 10 p.m.
"We just want to reduce the number of children who get used to being lied to and let down. They need someone really there," Mr. Roederer said. "What hurts me the most is if they make these mistakes, they won't be able to do the things in life they may want later on."
Often, the Roederers' time consists of talking to residents one-on-one.
"The stories are startling," Mr. Roederer said. "Thirteen-year-old girls who have already had two babies and want to keep them just to have something to love. Fifteen-year-old boys who talk about getting a gun to settle a score. They need someone to help them, not for just one hour but continuously. There's good in each and every one."
Heath Watson, associate youth minister at Grace Christian Fellowship in Largo who spent time in the center at 15, said as calloused as some of the youths are, they all appreciate the Roederers.
"None of the kids in there can deny the Roederers care," he said. "Even if these youth hear nothing but a better way of life than prison or getting killed, something good comes of it."
Mr. Roederer has seen that kind of good.
"They've spent so many years pointed in the wrong direction," he said. "My heart turns to them even before they talk to me."
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