`If I can make it, anyone can,' says Penikese Island graduate

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

HE approached us - a curious spectacle - sweat pants peeking out from under a white blanket. ``All hail, the Great Enrico!'' school founder George Cadwalader shouts jokingly. Dropping to his knees, arms in outstretched reverence, he bowed.

Ricky laughed. ``Hey, it's cold here, George,'' he says in defense of the blanket.

Mr. Cadwalader chuckled. ``Gone just a few months and already spoiled, eh, Ricky?''

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Ricky graduated from Penikese Island, a Massachusetts school for juvenile offenders, last fall. He came back this week ``to see the staff and keep them updated of what I do.''

``And I wanted a vacation from the city,'' the 17-year-old adds.

Ricky struggled against the wind to open the door of the dining hall/bunkhouse. The boys had just finished lunch and were off in different directions. A few joined us at the table with staff members and Ricky.

Right away Ricky started to tell Cadwalader about his new school. He's excited about his track team.

``We practice every day - run about six or seven miles,'' he boasts, already an old pro.

``You on the honor roll yet?'' Cadwalader asks.

``No, man, not yet.'' He looked up at Cadwalader and smiled. ``I wish I could. That ain't easy.''

The bond between Cadwalader and Ricky seemed to be a combination of father and son, and best friends. They respected each other, and had fun together.

But it wasn't always like that.

``When Ricky came here, he had a huge chip on his shoulder,'' staff member Jake explains. ``He was mad at everybody and everything.''

One day Jake wanted to play volleyball, but Ricky refused because he'd gotten mad at someone the day before. ``I said to him, `Can't you leave some of this stuff behind, Ricky?'''

What happened to turn Ricky around?

``I don't know. I have to think it's the environment we set up,'' Jake says. ``You get angry, that's all right. But talking about your anger is more acceptable than throwing things.''

The boys also learn how to express their positive emotions - sensitivity and caring. This is just as important as learning to deal with anger and frustration.

Jake relates an incident that illustrates the bond of trust the boys develop on the island. One day he came upon a boy who was ``laying down singing lullabies to rabbits to try to get them to come closer.'' Jake told him that he'd seen that, but the boy wasn't embarrassed because he knew he wouldn't be laughed at.

``They can feel comfortable and trust people here. They know that it's OK to be sensitive,'' he says.

Jake was delighted Ricky had come back to share his progress with the staff. ``Sometimes you're not sure anything's ever going to work, or any of them are ever going to change.

``Or you get kids you think are successful,'' Jake continues, ``and a couple of months later they're in prison - and of course it breaks your heart.''

Wherever the boys end up, says Janet, the female aide, ``years after they get out of Penikese they may think back about something good that happened here, and that's important.''

Ricky's memories of his six months at Penikese are mixed. ``I didn't like it there at first, but I got involved with the staff,'' he explains. What made him change?

``You might as well have the best of time while you're there, than be miserable, 'cuz if you're miserable... you're not gonna make it.'' He's been in many Department of Youth Services programs, and liked Penikese because ``people really listened to you.'' He adds quickly that it's important for the kids to listen.

Ricky left Penikese happily because he was eager to go back to a regular school. ``I want to go to college. Be a lawyer.'' Today he was in a hurry to get back for track.

``If you want to learn a lot, you can learn a lot there, believe me,'' he says, with the wisdom of youth.

``If I can make it, anyone can make it,'' he adds with a smile. He shook his head. ``I'm a very stubborn person.''

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