Life After Penikese
By: Elise R. Hugus
At first encounter, Matt seems like an average teenager. With iPod buds permanently implanted in his ears, black pants slung low around his hips, and Timberland boots that look like they have seen some action, the 17-year-old is friendly and genuinely eager to help strangers onto a waiting boat.
Three weeks after graduating from a program for troubled adolescents on Penikese Island, Matt’s main concern is survival. He is looking for a job, or preferably several, in the Falmouth area in order to start saving money. In September, he will be starting freshman year in high school—three years behind his peers.
Because Matt is a minor under the custody of the Department of Children and Families, his real name and place of residence cannot be printed. But his transition from a “juvenile delinquent” to a responsible adult is an experience that dozens of boys his age have gone through, with a little help from the staff at the Penikese Island School.
Matt said he is looking forward to turning 18, a requirement for many of the jobs he is interested in, including the Air Force. He does not want to end up like some of his contemporaries, who he said are either in jail or in mental hospitals.
“They all think they can go back to what they were doing before, doing drugs, and they won’t get in trouble,” he said.
Asked what makes him different, Matt’s reply is blunt.
“If I get arrested one more time, I’ll go to big boy jail.”
Last Stop: Penikese
Located near the end of the Elizabeth Island chain, Penikese is the last stop for boys who, for various reasons, have been unable to cope with life at home, in school, or in other programs. For six months to a year, up to nine boys and about as many staff make their home on the 75-acre island, sharing it with nesting terns and gulls.
There is no telephone, television, or Internet service. Electricity is limited to what is generated by a few solar panels on the roof of a communal living space. After the sun goes down, the boys use kerosene lamps while eating dinner, reading, or playing board games. Their days are divided into classroom study and the work necessary to make the household run.
This Buzzards Bay outpost served as a school for natural history until 1875, and as a leper colony in the early 20th century, but it was not until 1973 that former Marine and Woods Hole resident George Cadwalader founded the Penikese Island School.
Putting the nature-versus-nurture debate to the test, Mr. Cadwalader envisioned a self-sufficient community where troubled boys would be influenced to make choices based on mutual respect, an alternative to traditional juvenile detention programs.
Almost four decades later, the school has remained virtually the same, although the state now requires students to take the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) exam, and students often come with a long list of prescription medications.
Hard work and tough love from the live-in staff contribute to the boys’ rehabilitation, which is deemed complete once the boys earn nine home visits for good behavior.
Learning by doing
Drawing on Mr. Cadwalader’s founding principles, academics are worked into vocational activities, such as woodworking and landscaping. Books on marine biology and Shakespeare line the bookshelves, along with Sanyika Shakur’s “Monster: An Autobiography of an LA Gang Member” and manuals on small gas engine repair.
Clinical director Pamela Brighton said that developing the boys’ work ethic is central to getting them to take responsibility for their actions, both in the past and while at the school. Noting that a number of the students have learning disabilities, she said they tend to channel their frustrations into self-destructive or violent activities.
“Kids would rather be seen as bad than stupid. Frustration keeps them from completing or succeeding at something,” Ms. Brighton said.
Frustration seems to have been the downfall of one 15-year-old student who came to Penikese after running away from a drug rehabilitation program. His mother, who was visiting Penikese this week for the first time, said her son had started to change after he was removed from his high school’s baseball team for poor grades. Unable to engage in an activity that he was good at, the boy turned to pills, overdosing twice during the course of the year.
While it is hard for any parent to be separated from a child, the boy’s mother is grateful that he is safe and for the first time in his young life, writing letters and reading books of his own will. On the boat back to Woods Hole, his 10-year-old sister held a wooden birdhouse he had made, a souvenir from her brother’s six weeks on the island.
Imagination key to change
Chopping cords of wood sent in on a barge from Woods Hole, working in the garden, and mowing the fields and trails allow the whole community to stay warm in the winter, have a hot meal, and walk around the island. More than that, the boys’ labor is a concrete accomplishment they can be proud of, Ms. Brighton said. The proof is in their growing muscles—and budding self-confidence.
“The value of living on an island is that it’s a small, intense community. People see you for who you are,” said Ms. Brighton. So while the school staff recognize that not all graduates will become model members of society, they stress the importance in developing the boys’ interpersonal skills.
“The thing that keeps people from robbing or hurting each other is empathy,” Ms. Brighton said. “The more successful we are at creating meaningful relationships in people’s lives, the more they can relate to one another. That is the most important element of change.”
But Penikese is not all work and no play. Without any electronic influences, the boys face off with the staff in games of basketball or volleyball, between classes and group therapy sessions. Fishing expeditions culminate in a gourmet meal, and beach walks inspire some to create seaglass mosaics.
“Some kids have never gotten to be creative. In order to change their life, they have to have an imagination,” Ms. Brighton said.
A relatively new development at the school is an aftercare program, designed to ensure Penikese graduates will have the tools they need to adapt to life back in “the real world.”
Penikese for life
“The meat and potatoes of what we do is be a family for these kids,” Ms. Brighton said. Not unlike parents who send their children off to college, she said that staff maintain contact with graduates for as long as they are needed, but “only through their buy-in.”
Aftercare can mean that a staff member simply calls up a former student to see how they are doing, or can entail taking them job hunting or to a driving test. During his time off-island, community outreach coordinator Andrew J. Avault said he keeps in touch with at least seven graduates of the program.
“When I take a kid out, I try to bring them to a place they’re not used to. If we go out for pizza, I’ll take them to a college neighborhood, sort of letting them know, ‘you could be here too,’ ” Mr. Avault said.
This personal touch makes all the difference for some graduates, who know that they can call up a staff member on their cellphone, or even come back to Penikese for a voluntary visit.
Nelson Portillo, a 2008 graduate now working for a moving company in Chelsea, returned to Penikese for a week earlier this year “to get my mind clear again.” Now 19, he said the nine months he spent on the island gave him a new appreciation for life.
“It made me realize that anything in life, you gotta do for yourself. When I came out I wasn’t the same person,” he said.
“The day I was going there, it was a whole different world. It was raining in Boston but the sun was shining there.”
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