When Richard Bienvenue finished graduate school, he took a position in the school system in Virginia’s Arlington County, working with at-risk youths. He later moved on to teaching college courses and serving as a mental health counselor in an elementary school, but something was missing – what he had done in that earlier job, helping those who are most susceptible to problems.
“The idea never left me ... working with these at-risk kids,” says Mr. Bienvenue, or Benny, as he is often called.
Bienvenue realized that his true passion revolved around helping the “throwaway kids” whom many have given up on – be it related to delinquency issues, struggles at school, problems at home, or sometimes a combination of all three. So he worked tirelessly for three years, without pay, to clear the hurdles that stood in the way of establishing a nonprofit initiative for at-risk young men.
Bienvenue founded Our House, a residential program, in 1993. Today, it’s located on a picturesque 140-acre farm in Brookeville, Md. – a nurturing environment where male adolescents can grow. They focus on learning trades that can become their careers, and they do it with a structure that has often been lacking for them.
Our House’s central goal is to transform the outlook for participants – and to help them chart a positive path forward in their lives.
“Benny’s intention for the residents at Our House is not complicated. It is to uplift the odds of a better future,” says Paula Hansen, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Arcana Foundation, which has supported Our House with grants. “He teaches skills found in most trades, and has kept the spectrum of skills growing.”
Ms. Hansen, who made her comments in an email interview, adds, “Benny is the reason many young men have the tools to thrive against their odds ... and materially, each resident leaves Our House with a tool box to continue putting their acquired skills to good use.”
Youths typically find Our House through a state worker or social worker, whether part of the juvenile justice or foster care systems. Information on potential participants – or trainees, as Bienvenue calls them – is then shared with Our House and reviewed prior to an interview with the youths.
The focus on adolescent boys, Bienvenue notes, is based not only on the needs among males of that age, but also on the logistical issues that would be posed by a coed residential facility.
The residential setting is key. It’s vital, Bienvenue says, to at least temporarily remove the young men from the environments that have fueled some of their challenges. “Where you live has a tremendous influence on your behavior,” he says.
Beyond flipping burgers
For those who are accepted into the facility, the first month allows them to experience the broad range of trade programs available – from woodworking to farming to small-engine repair – before they take a more focused path. “We are trying to get the guys a viable trade, not just pumping gas or being a dishwasher or flipping burgers – a viable trade, an education,” Bienvenue says.
Each day’s work at Our House begins at 7:30 a.m. and ends at 4 p.m., simulating a typical day for a tradesperson. Evenings include homework and gatherings that recognize the successes of participants and offer inspirational examples for the young men to follow.
“I have tried to mimic, as much as possible, the job world, the home world,” Bienvenue says. “You try to boost them up; you try to make them feel caring and love.”
Most trainees spend between 10 months and a year in the program, though some might continue longer if they are close to earning their high school diploma or reaching another milestone in their life.
Our House currently has a license for 16 beds, but that number is expected to rise to 24 when a newly constructed dorm building is opened soon. To date, close to 400 young men have gone through the program, with most successfully completing it.
As Bienvenue explains, Our House defines success as a graduate working and paying into the tax system, instead of receiving intensive public resources and supports. In good economic times, the success rate can top 87 percent, he says, and it’s approximately 75 percent when the economy is down.
Our House does all this on a shoestring budget, averaging less than $1 million a year. Some 85 percent of its funding comes from referral agencies, with the rest coming from donors and foundations.
Returning to the phrase “throwaway kids,” Bienvenue notes the importance of working with this population.
“They are rough around the edges; they are impolite; their hygiene may not be great. They’ll steal your car. They don’t understand loving, caring, and empathy,” he says. “And yet they want to.... Most of them yearn for a second chance. Most of them are bright; most of them have a lot of potential.”
He adds, “Give them a chance, give them some inspiration, give them something that is viable – and most of them will come around.”
One young man’s story
On a warm, sunny afternoon on Our House’s farm, Bienvenue relishes the chance to run into some familiar faces – among them, 18-year-old Tavon Bean. Mr. Bean explains that he wound up at Our House after “a rough life” growing up in Baltimore. In the seven months he has spent at the facility, he has significantly expanded his career opportunities, particularly through training in landscaping and plumbing. But beyond that, his outlook on life and on his potential has changed dramatically.
“Before I got to Our House, I always wanted to be on the streets,” he says. “Now, I want to be better than the streets.”
That sort of transformation, Bienvenue says, is at the heart of what Our House tries to facilitate for each young man who passes through the program. Put another way, Our House helps participants see hope in their future. “You have got to offer them hope,” he says.
One of the members of Our House’s board of directors, Fred Silver, speaks highly of Bienvenue’s contributions to the organization, as well as to its success.
“Benny was the heart and soul of Our House and heavily involved with the boys on a day-to-day basis,” Mr. Silver says. “Benny had a personal involvement with each and every resident.”
As hinted at in those comments, Bienvenue is technically retired from his former post of executive director. But that would be hard to tell from the familiarity the trainees have with him, or from his frequent visits and interactions with the staff. Bienvenue, who is in his late 60s, says his high energy levels allow him to continue pitching in and being involved. He has no plan of quitting.
“I have had 45 years working with kids; a quarter of a century has been with at-risk kids,” he says. “It has been my life’s work.”
He sees the negative media messages and the challenges for these young men, and he has no shortage of ideas to help turn the tide. “I am not going to sit still,” he says. “Being in education and counseling all these years, I am not going to give up on it. It is just too important.”
Another board member, Edwin Gould, describes Bienvenue as “a loving guy” and someone who has been completely committed to Our House and each of its trainees.
“He was right there, and the guys came to him for their concerns, their complaints, whatever it happened to be,” Mr. Gould recalls. “He knew the name of every guy, and he knew what their issues were.”
The serene farmland setting for the organization, notes Gould, who himself was involved in teaching at Our House in the past, has a therapeutic effect on the trainees, which helps them to see what life is like outside of where they have come from.
“Some talk about how they have seen the stars for the first time in their lives,” he says. “Just being there, I think, is part of the impact.”
• For more, visit our-house.org.
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