For the week of December 23 thru December 29, 1998  

Project Respect enters third year

Funding shortage threatens teen program

Express Staff Writer

d23resp2.jpg (4090 bytes)Kevin Boender, founder of Project Respect, describes the plight of the much-needed teen program as it enters its third year with very little funding. (Express photo by Willy Cook)

I found Project Respect at the end of the hallway in Hailey, after what seemed a long journey.

A sign on the door read Teens Finding Dignity, Balance, and Change, through Respect. And I thought back to the beginning, when I was young and pure and life was simple and easy. And in the summer I lay on my back in the tall grass and made dreams out of the clouds. And I didn’t have a care in the world except to wonder why the sky was blue.

I knocked on the door, went in, and waited for my appointment, feeling the spirit and ghosts from my past. The tack board was cluttered with AA notices, and of course the prayer. I didn’t have to read it, I still knew it by heart, "Lord give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

And I remembered my struggle, the one that never ends, and felt that familiar ghostly power that gave me strength and made me shake at the same time, wondering where I would go, Heaven or Hell. And I recalled the guilt-ridden years wasted living hard and fast-- my dreams having been run into the ground.

The door opened and Kevin Boender walked in, and I understood the pamphlet I had read the day before, describing him as an inspiration to many who cross his path.

Project Respect is community-based and supported substance-abuse treatment program for teens, regardless of their ability to pay for the services.

The program was formed more than two years ago in response to concerns voiced by the people of the Wood River Valley through local town meetings, surveys and phone interviews, when they identified substance abuse as a major health priority.

Later I talked to a couple of teen-age graduates from the program. I could tell they’d been through some hard times, but after talking with them I sensed that their spirits were strong. And I knew they would be OK, that they were lucky to have crossed paths with Kevin Boender.

I asked what the program meant to them.

"Using the skills I learned from the program helped me cope with my substance-abuse problems, helped me stay in focus, stay sober."

"The program teaches you how to have fun without drugs and alcohol."

"The program has been really good for me. It’s brought me closer to my family and helped me realize how important family is."

"Project Respect helped me say no to drugs, made me more aware of the bad effects. I want everyone that has a problem to join this program."

They both told me that the hardest thing was changing friends, trying to put the influence of drugs and alcohol behind them.

"But we made new friends through the program," one said. "We got really close, learned to trust each other."

I thought of my old friends, the ones that were left, and said a prayer for them, knowing the struggle would never be over for them, until it was over.

After his graduates left, Boender talked about them like a proud parent.

"It feels good to have them make that connection; seeing the light turn on in their eyes, makes it all worth while."

Project Respect is about a man and his vision, and the inspiration he gives to those who come to him for help and strength in the battle against addiction.

The young people respond to Boender. He may not be as educated as the Betty Ford elite counselors, but he’s been there, walked the walk, lived hard and fast. He knows what the kids are going through, the struggle that rages inside, and so do I.

But this story isn’t about us, it’s about the youth, struggling for their lives against a disease that attacks the soul, eats away at the spirit. A disease for which there is no simple cure, no pill, no operation to fix them. And sometimes, the only thing that can save them is no less than a miracle, by the grace of God. And if the past that Boender and I know can help the youth of today in their struggle, by making them more aware, then all is justified and good.

Project Respect is about awareness—making kids aware of the consequences they face, the destructive impact that drugs and alcohol can have on their lives, if they choose to take this dangerous path. And if it seems hard, then so be it, for this is part of the cure, the treatment, as the following quote from a Project Respect Graduate illustrates.

"I liked how truthful and realistic the counselors were. They weren’t just telling us ‘don’t do drugs,’ they were helping us understand why."

Over the years drugs and alcohol take their toll, inevitably, steadily, stalking like slow and patient death. They destroy not only physically but spiritually; taking the spirit away, making one empty inside, until you can see the emptiness when you look in their eyes. And you know they’ve gone to far, lived hard and fast too long—that they’ve given up on ever quitting, resigning themselves to drinking and drugging it to the grave. This is reality.

Project Respect is about reality—the reality of drug and alcohol abuse and the devastation it can cause to the individual and society as a whole. Sometimes reality is not a pretty thing—80 percent of high school kids in Blaine County have experimented with alcohol, and over 50 percent with drugs, according to a student survey. Both those figures exceed state and national averages.

According to literature provided by the project, a growing number of our youth use drugs and alcohol at least weekly, and many have become addicted to heroin, cocaine or methamphetamines on a daily basis.

Yet Blaine County is far behind the nation in providing young people with access to substance-abuse treatment. And this is the reality that we as a community must deal with.

Project Respect is about hope—the only program in the state that provides treatment specific to adolescents with substance-abuse problems, regardless of their ability to pay.

According to Boender, "Project Respect is unique, has something to offer that no other community has-- a pilot program we can use to help other communities."

But sometimes—in today’s world, run by money—hope is not enough.

Boender said that the initial vision and existing out-patient treatment program will die without more funding.

"We built the structure, people came, and now we need the funding to keep it standing."

In the year and a half that Project Respect has been in existence, more than 100 teens have accessed its services and over 60 have completed the program, Boender said.

But the demand for treatment outweighs the services available. The program’s budget only allows for three staff members including Boender. This translates into a waiting list for teens trying to get into the program.

Boender said the program needs more money, more space, and more counselors to maintain the current its current level of service and to accommodate the rising number of teens seeking help for their substance-abuse problems.

According to Boender there are no residential inpatient substance-abuse programs in Idaho specifically designed for adolescents. For teens that require a greater level of treatment than the current out-patient program can provide, the only alternative is to leave the state.

It is that need, that gap in services, that forms the next step in Boender’s plan-- an in-patient residential 28-day juvenile program designed to accommodate up to 12 teens. Boender is currently trying to find a location and the money to fund this program.

Beyond this, Boender envisions a six-month intensive in-patient residential program with up to 40 beds. The first month of the program would focus specifically on substance-abuse treatment. The next five months would provide teens with educational opportunities and job-skills training, along with continued treatment, to help with the transition back into society.

Now going into the third year of the Blaine County program, Project Respect needs the community’s help to stay in existence. Current funding is drying up; the program has received as much money as possible from current funding sources.

Project Respect is vital to the youth of the community. With adolescent drug and alcohol use increasing in the Wood River Valley, the need to reach out to our teen-agers and provide them with alternatives is critical, according to Boender.

Times have changed since I was a kid, but drug and alcohol abuse are still on the rise. Kids are starting younger now--which scares even me—hardcore by 15. However, I still believe there’s hope for the world. But I know it’s got to start with the children, the youth, if we are to hope for a civilized future.


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