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Friday, May 6, 2016

Kiwanis takes interest in Youth Development

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Linda Merkel (left) and Patti Harmless
Learning about youth advocacy, Greencastle Kiwanians continued a chain of child service-oriented speakers recently to hear from Linda Merkel and Patti Harmless of the Putnam County Youth Development Commission.

The Putnam County Youth Development is a non-for-profit organization focused on handling delinquent children through educational programs, advocacy, and other services.

Merkel was happy to learn that many in Kiwanis had heard of the Youth Development Commission, which started in June 1996. Two years later, it became a state youth service bureau, allowing it to accept money from grants and endowments. Merkel said the organization has received money from state funds, the Putnam County endowment fund, and the Putnam County United Way.

"In the beginning, our main focus was just community education," Merkel continued. Today, she said the commission also focuses on advocacy for youth and keeping youth from delinquency.

Currently, the Putnam County Youth Development Commission has four main focuses and channels different programs through each one, Merkel said.

Delinquency programs include "Thinking for Yourself," anger management classes, and parenting and youth classes. She said there are trained and certified instructors for each course, and attendance is mandatory since most children are assigned through probation.

A new program Merkel said the commission was excited about is called Teen Court. This is a program for non-violent first-offenders from the age of nine through 17. Through their peers, children learn about how the court system works, and upon completion of the program, participant's offenses are dropped and juvenile records are cleared.

The second focus Merkel touched on was the continuing community education.

"We want to increase the local understanding of delinquency," she said. This is being done by community events and speeches, she added.

Information and referrals was the next focus, and Merkel stated the commission receives requests "in a variety of areas." She said they have been asked about divorce classes, job availability, mental health classes, and transportation help. The most recent story Merkel could recall was that of a woman who needed help getting her children to a hospital out of town.

Finally, the commission does a lot of advocacy work for children through its program entitled CASA, or Court Appointed Special Advocates. CASA is under the direction of the Putnam County Youth Development Commission, and Patti Harmless is CASA's director.

Harmless told the Kiwanians that CASA volunteers are a "voice of the children in court." They help during cases of neglect and abuse where the court has had to intervene and most likely decides the fate of those children.

Harmless explained that in most cases, the parents are the persons heard, but CASA believes the court needs to listen to the children's stories, as well.

During a court case, CASA is a separate party, Harmless said.

In Greencastle, CASA has been around for about 16 years, Harmless said. This branch is a member of the National CASA Association and is a certified program of the state.

"That means we're allowed to get funding by the state," she added.

She went on to say that the Greencastle CASA is completely run by its current 15 volunteers. Last year, she said the 20 volunteers helped 146 children during an approximate total of over 8,000 hours.

CASA volunteers are "quite often educators," Harmless said, but can come "from all walks of life."

"It's a very big commitment, but you always get something from it," she concluded.

Merkel said the Putnam County Youth Development Commission is excited about its upcoming events and programs.

This week, the commission is sharing a booth at the Putnam County fair with Kiwanis and is raffling off a Wii gaming system.

On Aug. 7, the commission is hosting National Night Out at Robe-Ann Park. This program is aimed at informing youth of safety issues.

In October, the commission is partnering with Hope Haven Horse Farms to put together its first haunted hayride.

Finally, the commission is organizing and participating again in Coats for Kids. Merkel said it hopes to collect 500 coats for needy children this winter.

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