Our House celebrates 20 years of serving youth, looks to future -- Gazette.Net



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This story was corrected on May 1, 2013. An explanation follows the story.

Charles “Roc” Dutton, a native of Baltimore and an accomplished actor and director, led a tumultuous life as a kid. He said that from ages 13 to 27, he served time in every juvenile and adult penal facility in Maryland.

While visiting Our House, a residential job training program for at-risk young men located in Brookeville, Dutton said he was inspired to make a difference, before it is too late.

“I don’t see viciousness in the eyes of those boys. I see kids screaming for guidance and wanting to be helped,” he said. “I saw myself.”

Our House celebrated its 20th anniversary of service to youth on April 19 with an open house at its 140-acre farm. Dutton served as honorary chair of the event.

Dutton’s epiphany happened after reading a book about black playwrights while in solitary confinement at the Maryland State Penitentiary, where he served nearly eight years for possession of deadly weapons and the assault of a correctional officer.

He was so inspired by the book, he asked the warden if he could direct a show that Christmas. While reciting his lines during the performance, Dutton observed the audience’s reaction, and determined that acting was his calling.

Dutton went on to land more than 100 roles in film and television, including blockbusters such as “Rudy,” “Alien 3,” “A Time to Kill” and “The Piano Lesson,” as well as his own series, “Roc,” which is set in Baltimore.

Dutton said curiosity led him to Our House.

“When I went out there, I was extremely impressed with what they are trying to do, their program, and their facilities,” he said. “I was even more impressed that it was not run like a prison with barbed-wire fencing.”

Dutton said that after talking to the kids, he knew he wanted to get involved. He said he would have felt like a hypocrite had he just walked away, without doing anything to help.

“I’m asked to visit these places all the time, and they are usually juvenile jails,” he said. “This wasn’t that, and I saw all that this place was, and what it could be.”

Our House is led by its founder and executive director, Richard “Benny” Bienvenue. He began his career as a special education teacher in Arlington County, Va., teaching students 16 to 20 years old, many of whom had been abused, neglected and abandoned.

He said the downfall was that it was a day program, so when the kids went home at night and over the weekends, they were subjected to further dysfunction.

He remembers speaking to his boss about starting a residential program, but she told him it would never happen in Arlington. The idea never left him.

He eventually quit his job to start a program that he knew could make a difference. What he didn’t realize was that it would take four long years to search for a property, and obtain licensing and funding.

“If I had known that, I would have never quit my job,” he said. “I was single and had no income, so I really learned to stretch every dollar I had.”

Eventually, he worked out an agreement with Camp Bennett in Brookeville, that he could start his program there in exchange for fixing up the property. The program then moved to an old hospital in Howard County, where Bienvenue worked out the same deal.

In 2000, he settled on the Brookeville farm, located on Zion Road.

“If I had wanted to open a day program, I could have got it up and running in a year, but being residential makes everything much more complicated,” he said. “I’ve had about 40 different individuals and groups come out to see what we are doing, because they want to start something similar. Of those, only two have gotten their places running.”

Our House is a supervised and structured learning environment that operates 24 hours per day, year-round. It serves at-risk adolescent males ages 16 to 21 who are in need of specialized help and a new start.

The program is operated by 11 full-time staff members, 12 part-time workers and “all kinds of volunteers,” Bienvenue said.

The young men are referred by state agencies. Bienvenue requires them to fill out an application and go through an interview process, as if they were applying for a job.

The state pays approximately 80 percent of the tuition costs. Bienvenue said the program has to raise the rest.

The highly structured program includes five eight-hour days of hands-on training in trades such as carpentry, drywall and roofing, as well as life-skills training, academics, and therapy sessions in the evenings.

Most of the carpentry and construction work is done for other nonprofit agencies, free of charge. Each Saturday, the young men perform community service work, such as their recent repairs to the Olney Police satellite station. The young men can be seen helping out at almost any Olney event, having earned appreciation and respect from the community.

“Our House is a special place,” Greater Olney Civic Association President Barbara Falcigno said. “Whenever there is an event in or around Olney, one can be sure that the young men from Our House are involved. I am impressed by each person at Our House that I have interacted with through my years of volunteer work. Always polite, always willing to do what is needed, and ready to do more.”

The program is constantly growing and evolving. The farm has provided the young men with a variety of entrepreneurial opportunities, including growing organic crops, raising chickens and beekeeping. Students then sell their produce, eggs and honey, both at the farm and at the Olney Farmers & Artists Market.

Bienvenue said the curriculum is constantly expanding, due to the many volunteers who offer to teach the young men skills. Small-engine repair, photography, calligraphy and pottery are some of the recent offerings.

Bienvenue said that about 350 young men have gone through the program, which typically lasts about a year.

“We’ve had many more successes than failures,” he said. “Most of our graduates are doing well and are employed, and some are making a lot more money than I do. These guys are now out paying taxes, instead of sucking from taxes.”

Bienvenue’s program has received many accolades, including Oprah Winfrey’s “Use Your Life” Award in 2000. Our House was chosen from thousands of nominees to receive the award, courtesy of “Oprah’s Angel Network,” and was subsequently featured on three more shows, including a follow-up segment on the trainees. It also has been featured in People magazine, and is the recipient of several awards, including The Thomas Jefferson Medal for Outstanding Public Service and Presidents’ Service Award Citation — the Points of Light Foundation.

Bienvenue’s plans for the future include building a new dormitory that will house up to 24 students, up from the 16 that can be accommodated now. He said they have raised almost half of what they need for the project, estimated to cost $3 million. He is hopeful they will break ground in the fall.

Dutton is working his Hollywood connections to find financial supporters, and also is planning a benefit performance.

“As special as this is to me, it’s in Maryland, and they are in California,” he said. “Every state has its own problems, but I am going to do all I can to get some Hollywood entities willing to write yearly checks for the good work that is going on at Our House.”

As Bienvenue reflects back, he said he never envisioned the expansion of the curriculum, and the variety of skills the students leave with. He is grateful for the community support and the many volunteers that help, ranging from those who drive the young men to dental appointments, or others, like Rockville resident Peggy Hart, who recently taught the students a course on etiquette.

“It’s been a fascinating 20 years,” Bienvenue said. “Some of the stories these kids have just make you cry. I want kids to do well — that is my life’s work.”

For more information, go to www.our-house.org.

The original version of the story incorrectly reported the number of residents Our House can accommodate. Our House can accommodate 16 residents.

thogan@gazette.net