May 31, 2006

Journey To Set Spirits Free

By Lisa Finn

Michael* is a recovering drug addict who has spent the past several months at Community Solutions, Inc. a private, non-profit Connecticut criminal justice agency that offers alternatives to incarceration to young people who've been in trouble with the law.

Marcus* grew up knowing no other life than that of the street. He began selling drugs at a young age and, although he didn't use drugs himself, soon found himself facing time at Community Solutions with a future that had looked forever bleak.

Both young men, who had never met before, have suddenly bonded over a life-altering experience that will have them literally setting sail on a voyage of the body and soul this July 8 and heading for Greenport in a 35-foot, 10-seat, dugout canoe that they've carved, with the help of other young people like themselves, from a fallen Eastern cottonwood tree.

The project is innovative and inspiring, offering young people from the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Program between the ages of 16 and 20 a chance to create a canoe and embark upon an educational journey that has the potential to change their lives forever.

It's the maiden voyage for the project, which was conceived by George Frick of the volunteer group Friends of the Connecticut River and shepherded by James Greene, an attorney with Connecticut's judicial branch's court support services division and Judge Robert Holzberg of the Middletown Superior Court.

Young people from communities including New Haven, Middletown, and Hartford will paddle down the Connecticut River in a voyage beginning July 8 that is expected to end up in Greenport on July 12.

Construction of the canoe began on May 18; the canoe is formed from a 45-foot cottonwood that was located on Wilcox Island in Connecticut. Coincidentally, said Middletown Councilman Ron Klattenberg, the tree fell down by itself during a winter storm. Klattenberg was in Greenport on Sunday to discuss the project with village mayor David Kapell.

The goal, said Klattenberg, is to imbue young hearts and minds with the cultural and historical relevance of constructing a canoe. No project of this type has ever been attempted before in New England. Research for the canoe's design was conducted at the Mashantucket-Pequot Museum & Research Center and The Institute for American Studies with the help of Frick, who created a smaller dugout canoe in 2005.

"This is not just an adventure," said Klattenberg. "It is has cultural importance and historical importance."

Klattenberg explained that the young people involved will cross the Long Island Sound in both the dugout and another canoe, with two ships surrounding them for safety. Sea trials will begin on June 12, a mean feat for many who have only known city streets.

And therein lies the magic, said Flannigan Smith, community service coordinator for Community Solutions, Inc. For the first time, eyes dimmed by broken dreams will light up with possibility as they leave dark pasts behind and open doors to bright futures through hard work and team spirit.

"They're excited to be doing the project," said Smith, who said that typically, community service projects involve general maintenance and cleanup. "Nothing is quite as rewarding or as involved as this."

There are 30 clients in the residential facility Smith is associated with, all of whom are 18 to 21 years old and serving four-to-six month stints. While involved with Community Solutions, young people have the opportunity to receive substance abuse counseling and earn their GEDs before applying for colleges.

But the education the group involved with the canoe project is receiving is invaluable. Not only have they learned volumes about Native Americans before the tree was moved, it was blessed by members of the Mohegan Tribe to recognize native cultural customs, with individuals such as Charlie Two Bears working closely beside the young men. The group is also learning lifelong lessons about inner fortitude. "There was a lot of skepticism at first about how this was going to work, how long it was going to take," said Smith. Now, however, "they're very involved, and like what they are doing."

Teamwork is key, with the group dividing chores according to ability. Not always easy for "a group of guys who come from all different walks of life," said Smith. "This isn't like six buddies. They were not friends. These are guys just meeting for the first time in a residential household, who might not necessarily have had good attitudes."

Now, however, those same young men will be relying on strength, teamwork and trust to get them across the Sound to Greenport safely. The feeling among them is, "If we do this and make it all the way over to Greenport, it's going to be life-altering," said Smith.

It's a lesson that will be forever be ingrained in their hearts and minds. "They're learning that they can do anything as long as they put their minds to it. If this trip goes as planned, the teamwork that comes into building the canoe will be magnified a thousandfold," said Smith.

When Klattenberg approached Kapell about Greenport as a destination, the mayor was enthused and noted that the event will coincide with Fleet Week, when scores of midshipmen will be in the village.

"What a welcome committee we will have on hand!" said Kapell.

"Greenport has a naval history, as does Middletown," said Klattenberg, who added that the distance was right: "It's a doable challenge."

On Sunday, Kapell and Klattenberg toured Mitchell Park, where the young men will pitch their tents. The mayor told Klattenberg that he will discuss with the village board the possibility of contributing $1500 to expenses related to the group's stay in Greenport.

As for those young people who have spent months working from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., three days a week, they are eager to see the fruits of their labors. "It's something they never dreamed they'd have the opportunity to do, something that from the start they never thought they could accomplish," noted Smith.

* Last names have been withheld to protect the identities of Community Solutions participants.

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