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    Group's youth efforts bring national award

    Eckerd Youth Alternatives, a program for troubled adolescents, earns praise for its commitment to improve the community.

    By LORRI HELFAND

    © St. Petersburg Times, published September 22, 2000


    CLEARWATER -- Robin Carpenter was heading down a slippery slope. The high school student abused drugs, ran away from home and refused to listen to her mother.

    Two years ago an unwelcome surprise turned her around. Carpenter's mother picked her up from school, took her to dinner and dropped her off at a wilderness camp for troubled youths in Floral City.

    "Honestly, it was the best thing that helped me through my problem. If I hadn't have gone there I wouldn't have changed," Carpenter said.

    That life-changing camp is run by a Clearwater nonprofit organization that helps troubled youths. Today the organization, Eckerd Youth Alternatives, will receive a national Daily Point of Light Award.

    The award, sponsored by the Points of Light Foundation, the Knights of Columbus and the Corporation for National Service, each day recognizes organizations and individuals that improve their communities.

    "We are deeply honored that the Points of Light Foundation has recognized the tremendous contributions to our nation's youth that are being made daily by our 1,300 employees," Karen Waddell, president and CEO of Eckerd Youth Alternatives, said in a statement released by her office.

    "Eckerd Youth Alternatives fits the criteria for the award perfectly in all areas," said Crystal N. Hill, manager of the Daily Points of Light Award from her Washington D.C. office. "They address community concerns by dealing with delinquent or at-risk youth, providing an alternative to hospitalization or incarceration."

    The award comes on the heels of a harsh Department of Juvenile Justice report that says an Eckerd wilderness camp counselor used an improper restraint on a 12-year-old boy who died. Also, the report says, another employee supplied false information and camp managers withheld documents.

    Vicki Cooper, director of corporate communications for the organization, acknowledged the "tragic accident" and said, "What is really important is that we have cared for more than 35,000 kids over our 32 years of operation, and we have never had an incident like that before."

    Carpenter, 18, one of the many youth served by the organization, said she was angry about being dropped off at the camp and had no intention of going along with the plan. "I sat there and I thought, "You guys can't tell me what to do,"' she said.

    She reluctantly ran the ropes course, did her chores and slept in a tent every night with a mosquito net draped over her.

    But after a while, her attitude changed because she felt the staff cared about her.

    "The counselors are so willing to help you if you have a problem. They are so understanding. It helped me most to have someone there that was willing to listen to me."

    Now, Carpenter said, things are much different. She doesn't do drugs. She's a senior at Admiral Farragut Academy, with a 3.2 grade-point average. And her relationship with her mother is much better.

    The biggest changes, she said, are on the inside. "While I was in camp I learned to appreciate myself," she said. "I have a lot better communication skills, and I don't get so fussy or upset about little things."

    In 1968, Clearwater philanthropists Jack and Ruth Eckerd founded the wilderness camp for troubled youth. Today, the non-profit organization offers more than 30 programs in seven states, including 17 wilderness camps and nine juvenile justice programs. Each year the program assists more than 5,000 young people.

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