December 30, 2011

Bill Nemitz: Hooked on giving back

It's hardly the kind of talk you'd expect from a kid who's spent the last nine months at the Long Creek Youth Development Center.

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Volunteer Dan Reardon, below, oversees a program at the Long Creek youth center that not only has produced 3,000 blankets to donate to others, but also has taught troubled teens the rewards of learning a skill and giving back. He’s “truly an unsung hero,” the superintendent says.

Photos by John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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"I never would have thought of myself crocheting -- not in my entire life," said Shane Samara, 19, as he deftly transformed three balls of bright red, yellow and green yarn into a reggae-style blanket for his 2-year-old son.

"My grandmother does it," he continued. "And every time I'd see her do it, I was like, 'How can you sit there for hours and just do that? It looks so boring!'"

Except it isn't.

Last week, while most of us went about our pre-holiday wheel-spinning, Samara and two dozen other young offenders inside the juvenile detention facility in South Portland quietly passed a milestone that has nothing to do with crime and everything to do with community.

The Blanket Project, which for the past decade has put some of Maine's toughest kids in touch with their inner Grandma, churned out its 3,000th blanket for anyone -- especially young children -- who can use a little extra comfort at this time of year.

They've sent 570 blankets to the Portland Family Shelter. About 100 each have gone to Head Start programs at Portland's Kennedy Park and Sagamore Village. Other blankets have warmed up the Root Cellar, the Salvation Army and a long list of other social service agencies throughout southern Maine.

"I tell people all the time, 'I've got to go crochet with 25 teenage boys in jail,'" said volunteer Dan Reardon, the project's founder. "And people usually think it's some kind of joke. They say, 'What's the punch line?'"

"That is the punch line," Reardon replies. "That's exactly what I'm going to do."

It all started one day in 2001 when Reardon, the former president of Bass Shoe Co. who began volunteering 23 years ago at what was then the Maine Youth Center, got an unusual request from one of Long Creek's 163 residents.

"He said, 'I like to crochet, but I can't have scissors and the hook without a volunteer. Can you sit with me while I do it?'" recalled Reardon. "So I said sure."

Double-takes abounded as Reardon and his young charge sat in a classroom chatting while the boy's hook and yarn flew. "Hey," other boys began asking, "can we try that?"

"And that's how it all started," said Reardon.

Week after week, month after month, year after year, the boys mastered and passed on the intricacies of the single, double, treble, double-half and crown stitches. They made colorful afghans for their baby brothers or sisters (or, in some cases, their own babies), scarves for their grandmas and grandpas, hats for their mothers and fathers.

In 2004, Reardon added "tie blankets" to the program: Take two equal-size layers of fleece, cut half-inch-wide tabs around the edges and painstakingly knot each pair of tabs together.

The same year, the finished blankets began going out en masse to the very communities that once had been wronged by the young offenders.

A $20,000 donation from the Portland Eagles Club funded The Blanket Project for several years. These days, the annual $5,000 cost is covered by Reardon "and a few of my friends."

Standing off to one side Wednesday while Reardon offered a compliment here, a word of encouragement there, Long Creek Superintendent Rod Bouffard said the effort hasn't gone unnoticed.

"Dan has done more for kids in the state of Maine than people will ever realize," Bouffard said. "He's truly an unsung hero."

Bouffard often gets calls from his peers around the country who hear of Long Creek's many successes with kids in trouble and want to know how Maine does it. Inevitably, the talk turns to The Blanket Project.

"They say, 'Right. You let these kids have scissors and metal crochet hooks?'" Bouffard said with a chuckle. "They can't believe it."

Nor can they grasp the idea that a volunteer like Reardon can meet with his blanket boys three times a week without the need for security to keep things peaceful.

"It's really soothing in a positive way," explained D.J. Cressey, 17, of Brunswick. "It's like there are ways to get high positively -- and this is one of them."

Cressey was addicted to heroin before he arrived at Long Creek last summer. He learned how to make tie blankets a little over a month ago. Now, much to his pleasant surprise, he can finish one in 25 minutes flat.

"Being a drug addict, instant gratification is part of the lifestyle," Cressey said. "And you come in here and it's almost the same way -- you get to tie a blanket and you see it finished -- but it's a new kind of gratification.

"You start to understand, 'Man, I'm giving this to someone else! For once I'm giving back everything I've taken, you know?' It's definitely a really different and cool way of looking at stuff."

It's also, for those who might be in search of a truly meaningful New Year's resolution, a different and cool way to change a kid's life for the better while there's still time. For information on volunteering at Long Creek, call Melanie Cardus or Stephanie Netto at 822-2605.

Upon being released, each Long Creek resident completes a survey. One question asks, "Who had the most influence on you while you were here?"

"Invariably, eight out of 10 kids name a volunteer," said Superintendent Bouffard. "And then of that group, most of them mention (Reardon) by name. He's had that much of an impact."

Reardon, whose 15-20 hours per week at Long Creek (he also runs a weekly support group) follow his day job as director of mission effectiveness at the nonprofit Learning Works in Portland, said he's yet to learn how to crochet.

Nor, when he first came knocking all those years ago, was he equipped with anything more than a patient ear and an open heart.

"You know, I don't know how to solve all their problems and fix all those kinds of things," Reardon said. "But if I can help these kids give someone else some kind of present, that's about as good as it gets for me."

And for the kids as well?

Reardon looked around the room as blanket ... after blanket ... after blanket ... made its way to the next outgoing pile.

"I hope so," he said with a smile. "I hope so."

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

bnemitz@mainetoday.com

 

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Additional Photos

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D.J. Cressey, 17, of Brunswick ties the tabs on a blanket. He says the work is rewarding because “I’m giving this to someone else! For once I’m giving back everything I’ve taken.”

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Jacorey Monterio of Portland crochets an item for The Blanket Project. The 10-year-old program has provided more than 500 blankets to the Portland Family Shelter and hundreds of others to various social service agencies.

 


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