Ground broke for youth detention center in Kenai

Posted: Monday, June 03, 2002

After 25 years of pleading, planning and praying, Eric Weatherby finally realized the fruits of his labors Friday at a groundbreaking ceremony for the new Kenai Peninsula Youth Detention Facility.

Weatherby, along with five other people, dug a gold-tipped shovel into the gravel on the 10-acre lot on Marathon Road and ceremoniously set in motion the construction of the 10-bed center. The six men represented dozens of others who have had a hand in bringing the facility to the peninsula.

In 1977, nine years after McLaughlin Youth Center was built in Anchorage, Weatherby, then a probation officer on the peninsula, and a group of community members began considering the possibility of constructing a similar but smaller version of McLaughlin closer to home.

It took almost a quarter of a century, but after the need for a youth center on the peninsula was identified by the state Department of Health and Social Services' 1997 master plan, Weatherby's dream is finally becoming a reality.

By 1997, he had moved on to his current position as the probation supervisor for southcentral Alaska, but Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly member Pete Sprague took the baton and ran with it.

Along with a committee made up of peninsula residents and others involved with juvenile justice, Sprague spent the past 4 1/2 years doing exactly what Weatherby had tried to do 25 years earlier -- convincing legislators and the public that the peninsula needed a youth detention center.

Currently, youth offenders are temporarily held in inadequate facilities in area police stations before being sent for detainment or treatment at McLaughlin.

"I believe kids and families, when a kid is arrested, have a window of opportunity to take a look at what hasn't been working. Having kids and their families together is good for everybody," said Barbara Henjum, the associate superintendent at McLaughlin who has and will continue to be a resource for the facility on the peninsula.

The commissioner for the state Department of Health and Social Services, Jay Livey, concurred.

"The outcome of those who leave home is just not as good as those who can stay in the community," he said.

Not only will kids now be closer to their community and parental support networks, but it also will be easier for them to reconnect with the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. The center will include educational facilities that will be able to provide youth, generally already alienated from the system, with a way to re-enroll in classes and avoid losing credits away from the traditional setting.

Another benefit of the new facility cited is the decrease in time area law enforcement officers will have to spend taking youth back and forth between Anchorage. Weatherby said, it was estimated having a center on the peninsula will save 12,000 to 15,000 hours a year.

Construction of the $5 million center will be completed in February 2003 at which time the committee will have an entirely new job of securing funds from the Legislature for the hiring of staff to run the facility.

"The Legislature has made a strong commitment over the past five years, and I expect to see that continue. Of course, none of us know what the budget picture is going to look like a year from now," Weatherby said.

The community members involved in the project have proved they won't take no for an answer and the retiring director of the Division of Juvenile Justice, George Buhite, acknowledged their tireless work at the ceremony.

"We all know things don't get done in a vacuum , it requires a lot of effort," he said.

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