Thursday, March 13, 2008

Youth group seeks to change paths

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Susan Whitney⁄The Gazette
Dion Oglesby is the program of Langworthy House in Hyattsville, part of the Hearts & Homes for Youth program.
The Hyattsville house that’s home to the group of teenage boys is spotless. In the kitchen, the counters are clean, and the only sign of disturbance is the lone broom leaning against a counter. The young residents share housework, with each responsible for regular chores like cooking.

And something else makes this home special. The boys who live in the house — officially named the Langworthy Boys Group Home — are referred by the juvenile justice and social services systems of Maryland. These boys live together like brothers, but they’re away from their parents. They live at Langworthy for 9 to 24 months to develop life skills.

Hearts and Homes for Youth operates the home, along with several other group and shelter homes for young people across the state of Maryland. Headquartered in Silver Spring, the organization recently observed its 44th year of helping abused, neglected and runaway youth to become independent adults.

To do this, the organization provides educational, residential, independent living and mental health programs for more than 400 young people per year.

Dion Oglesby — or ‘‘Mr. Dion” as he’s called by his young charges — is the program manager at Langworthy. On a typical morning, the teens wake up at 6:30, have a breakfast of cereal and go off to school.

Two counselors are on staff 24 hours a day, and each resident has a different story. Some take medication to manage emotional distress. Others have been neglected by parents. All participate in-group house meetings and meet with a social worker.

Oglesby finds himself interacting with the teens like a parent would.

‘‘I like hanging out with them,” he says at he sits in his office, a whiteboard with coded information about residents hanging on the wall behind him. ‘‘They’re funny, they’re smart, they’re respectful.”

Indeed, as he talks, there’s a knock on the door before a young resident enters. It’s almost time for school to start, and the teen asks ‘‘Mr. Dion” for a ride since there’s a test that day.

After arranging transportation, Oglesby says the young man’s home environment wasn’t the best before he arrived at Langworthy. And, in general, many kids referred to Hearts and Homes arrive in dire straits.

‘‘The only thing that they have is what’s on their back,” Rex Smith, Hearts and Homes president and CEO, says of some kids who are admitted, with some arriving even without underwear.

Smith is so committed to the organization that he returned after serving as the original executive director more than 40 years ago. Back then, he says, youth who committed crimes were routinely sent to a state training school in Baltimore — where it was easy to learn tricks for a hard-knock life.

‘‘They needed something in between,” he says of the young clients, remembering that some justice officials thought incarceration wasn’t the only option. So, he worked with a Montgomery County Judge to incorporate a nonprofit boys’ home in a farmhouse attic.

Today, Smith estimates that about half of the program’s youth have been neglected or abused or have seen domestic violence. The remaining youth have experienced some sort of family dysfunction.

But, when young people leave the program after working with trained staff, they’ve learned life skills and are better able to deal with authority, Smith says.

‘‘You can see, and feel and almost touch the growth they develop,” he adds.

Oglesby says the staff encourages this growth through role modeling and helping youth establish pride for themselves. The words on his whiteboard at Langworthy read, ‘‘Winning is our business,” and Oglesby seeks to keep that promise.

‘‘We have a couple of guys whose home situations are ‘yucky,’ but they make it,” Oglesby says. Pausing for a moment, he says it again: ‘‘They make it.”

Hearts & Homes

How they make adifference: The 44-year-old organization tries to help youth who are abused, neglected, or runaways become productive adults. Call 301-589-8444 or visit