Is this the solution to 'throwaway kids'?

CNN Hero Richard Bienvenue
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CNN Hero Richard Bienvenue 01:41

Story highlights

  • Teacher helps troubled teens learn trade skills from professionals and offers them high school education
  • Many graduates of the Our House program have earned trade licenses and are working full-time
  • Do you know a hero? Nominations are open for 2015 CNN Heroes

Brookeville, Maryland (CNN)As a special education teacher, Richard Bienvenue worked with many troubled teenage boys. For years, he observed the toll their surroundings took on them.

"The kids in my classes were from some pretty horrendous situations: dysfunction at homes, foster care, and abuse," said Bienvenue, who taught carpentry classes. "The tears you would see, the anguish they would go through, I saw a real need."
For more than two decades, Bienvenue has been helping struggling young men rebuild their lives. And he's using some unlikely tools: hammers and nails.
    His nonprofit, Our House, provides a residential setting where participants receive job training and counseling. They learn trades, such as carpentry and small engine repair, and complete their high school education.
    "Our guys either come from foster care or the court system," Bienvenue said.
    Studies show that former foster youth face higher rates of incarceration, homelessness, unemployment and poor academic achievement.
    "We take on a lot of tough cases -- they're rougher kids, many have less hope. We'll always give them a chance; we'll always take them in."
    Bienvenue has handed out second chances to more than 350 young men from the Washington area. Many graduates of his program have earned trade licenses and are now working full-time.
    CNN spoke with Bienvenue about his efforts. Below is an edited version of the conversation.
    CNN: You've been running your program for more than 20 years, and you've had a lot of success. What inspired you to get started?
    Richard Bienvenue: The teenagers I taught back in the '70s, before I started Our House, were at-risk kids. If they didn't have some type of intercession, they were not going to make it. Monday mornings were the worst because kids had spent two whole days in (their home) environment. We'd spend most of the day trying to deprogram them rather than actually teaching them anything.
    As a teacher, I felt very frustrated -- almost to the point, "What's the use of doing this? What's the use of putting a lot of energy into it, a lot of getting to know the kids, getting the rapport going and then all of a sudden, it's all gone?"
    That's when I got to thinking, "Geez, don't let these kids go home at night. Take them out and put them in a residential setting where they can concentrate on themselves, where they can study -- where they're not influenced by all the dysfunctional, crazy things that went on in their lives when they went home." So I started this program.
    CNN: There are lots of job training programs for troubled teens. What makes yours unique?
    Bienvenue: Our program is in a residential setting where during the daytime, our guys learn trade skills from professionals. And at nighttime we give them their high school education. We're able to offer our kids around-the-clock care -- nurturing them, teaching them accountability and giving them hope.
    In addition, we have a full-time certified social worker on staff who helps our young men deal with internal issues, problems that they have, anxiety they might have. They help them achieve self-esteem, which is very, very important, and also get ready to take the next step forward into adulthood.
    The grounds we have here are wide open -- fields, trees, animals. It is not a lockup. They go out and they can play ball. They can go for a walk. This facility becomes a home to many of them. It brings them peace. It brings them the ability to think and reflect.
    Extra: Our House
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    CNN: Why did you choose to focus on young men?
    Bienvenue: 'Cause more of them get in trouble. More of them fall through the cracks. More of them are seen as throwaway kids.
    Growing up, my father did carpentry work. After I got out of college, I did that on the side to make some money so I could go to graduate school. If it hadn't been for him, I wouldn't have learned that skill.
    I firmly believe that you've got to give back. Since I was very fortunate growing up, I have to give back now. I don't want to see any more kids fall through the cracks. If I can give them an opportunity to turn their lives around, to step forward -- that's my life's work.
    CNN: It's important to you to teach the guys in your program to give back. Why is that?
    Bienvenue: We've done tens of thousands of hours of giving back to the less fortunate and to the community. It's critical to what we do here. It builds their self-esteem. Every single Saturday, they go do construction projects for other nonprofits and charities.
    Over the past three or four years, we've done all the maintenance and repairs at the local police substation. It's been a great partnership -- our young men see law enforcement officers interacting with them and that there can be a positive relationship between them and the police, despite their backgrounds.
    Some of these kids come from a place where they aren't encouraged to help or care for their neighbor. Here, they're really learning and understanding they can make a significant difference in somebody else's life.
    Want to get involved? Check out the Our House website at www.our-house.org and see how to help.