Independent Streak: Enterprising teen learns limits | Summer 2015 Spotlight | A couple of things you should know about Austin: He is not afraid of work. He likes to get things done.
He cooked and cared for his brother and sister while his mom worked late shifts at her restaurant job. He’s got a mind for business and he’s good with his hands, finding odd jobs and writing contracts for painting, building fences or decks, roofing or car repairs.
But in January, his independent ways landed him in the Chowan multipurpose home. He had quit going to school and he was making decisions like an adult—at the age of 15—without the benefit of age and experience.
“Austin grew up a little faster than other youth at his age,” says Chowan Program Manager Nicole Walker. “He was independent and did what he wanted to do.”
These decisions were jeopardizing his future, and his court counselor saw Methodist Home for Children’s Chowan home as a way to get him back on track.
Teens who come to MHC multipurpose homes are repeat juvenile offenders, often arriving on a probation violation. They are referred when someone in the juvenile justice system sees potential in them.
Austin is smart and resourceful. He loves cars and started helping his mechanic father when he was 8—“under the hoods like a greasy monkey.” But his troubles began when he was 10 and his parents split up. Austin was devastated. The boys lived first with their father and later moved in with their mother and her boyfriend in a new town.
By then, Austin was an 8th grader with a strong dislike for authority and especially for his mother’s boyfriend. “I saw him as a big threat to my family,” Austin stays.
It seemed to Austin that the adults in his life couldn’t be trusted. His family had fallen apart. His mother’s boyfriend was a drug-user. And his new school wasn’t doing enough to protect his 6th-grade brother from bullies who had started harassing him early in the semester. At that point, Austin decided he’d had enough and he’d fix the one problem he could: He would stop the bullying.
The resulting fight on a school bus ended in an assault charge against Austin and probation—not the outcome he’d expected. The whole chain of events made him angry with school authorities who’d failed to help his brother, he says, and he stopped going to classes. By 9th grade, he was skipping school to work, taking jobs in his neighborhood or late kitchen shifts at the restaurant where his mother bartended.
“I was too tired to go to school or I didn’t care about what they were doing that day,” he says. “It was more of the ‘I don’t care’ attitude.”
But those missed classes mattered to his court counselor because they violated a probation requirement that Austin earn A’s and B’s in school.
By the time Austin was referred to the Chowan multipurpose home, he says, he was arrogant and disrespectful toward authority figures. Like many teens who come to the home, he didn’t see the problem at first. “When I got here, I was saying ‘yes ma’am, no ma’am.’ I did learn that growing up. But when it came down to asking permission to do stuff, I wouldn’t ask. I would do what I wanted.”
But the structure and discipline of the home appealed to him, and he began to appreciate the skills he was learning, like asking for and accepting feedback. He also began to think about the decisions he’d made and the choices that would have been better.
“I can see that I was trying to be the adult in my house when I was only a kid,” he says. “I felt like I was the one who had to fix my brother’s problem with the bully, because I didn’t feel I could trust the adults to do it.”
So today, Austin has a new plan.
He doesn’t want to go back to being the person he was before. But he doesn’t want to go back to high school either. He’ll get his GED and go to the College of Albemarle for computer integrated machining and welding. He wants to enlist in the military when he’s 18 and serve four years.
“My dream is to open a restoration shop when I get out,” he says. “I’ve always wanted to open a restoration shop. Cars are my thing. I can name every part under the hood. Old cars—I can see the beauty and the style. I’ve always loved them.”
Austin says he’s thankful that his court counselor helped steer him to Methodist Home for Children and back toward his dreams. “He didn’t want me in a Youth Development Center or in prison,” he says. “He wants me to have a good life and I realize now that he put me in here for a reason. He wants to see me doing something better with my life.”