CONNELL — At first glance, the five-acre compound surrounded by barbed wire and a heavy chain-link fence on the outskirts of town doesn’t look like a place where business owners would go to hire an employee.
Yet, every two months, some Tri-City employers make the 35-mile drive north to Camp Outlook, a military-style boot camp for juvenile offenders off an isolated road near Connell’s Coyote Ridge Correctional Facility.
They conduct mock job interviews with the incarcerated teens who call the compound home. Instead of computers and cubicles, the backdrop is a barracks with rows of precisely made bunk beds.
The interviews are not intended to provide structure — there already is plenty of it in the long hours dedicated to synchronized marching and physical fitness. They’re designed to create a new path of opportunity for the disadvantaged youth.
Along with their resumes, the teens bring with them the weight of sullied pasts and the desire for a brighter future.
The interviewers act as mentors, reflecting on the teens’ mistakes and challenging them to do better.
“We get more from the experience than they even do,” said Preston House, who owns a chain of Papa John’s Pizza stores in the Tri-Cities. “There’s more than just the interview side.”
About 60 percent to 70 percent of the offenders at Camp Outlook have been convicted of burglary or theft. Camp Director Chris Ankney said they come from all over the state. They choose to participate in the four-month boot camp to help them transition back into society and get time off their sentences.
The camp operates under the umbrella of Pioneer, a Seattle-based nonprofit offering a variety of services to more than 10,000 people in almost 60 locations in the state. Pioneer contracts with the state Department of Social and Health Service’s Juvenile Justice Rehabilitation Administration.
Ankney believes there is no other program in the state that offers Camp Outlook’s rehabilitation model.
“(The program) takes away all the different kinds of social norms these kids come in with,” he said. “They come from gang backgrounds, broken families and different parts of the state. We take that all away and they become one.”
The camp models itself after the Marine Corps.
After chow time on a recent sunny day, it’s clear that living at the camp means conforming to a different lifestyle.
Inside the barracks, trainees on the verge of graduation scrambled to use the bathroom during an allotted time. They passed a roll of toilet paper under the stalls as an instructor dressed in camouflage stood in the doorway, barking orders.
Outside, recent arrivals marched in formation in the hot sun. A former Marine turned camp drill instructor stood by to correct their every misstep.
Teens around the camp stood tall, wearing matching uniforms, pants tucked into military boots.
Sentences began and ended with “Sir” or “Ma’am.” Teens referred to themselves as “trainee,” not as their own names.
They moved frenetically from duty to duty, their voices straining as they responded emphatically to supervisors.
Physical challenges are an important part of the training, and there’s no rest for the weary. A Marine-style obstacle course looms on the edge of the property, waiting to test their conditioning. A high ropes course requires trainees to climb a pole and jump to a trapeze. A large pit for pushups and a web of intertwined ropes for team-building exercises sit near the gate.
Richard Sek, 18, chose to come to the camp for the physical challenge, he said. He saw it as an easy obstacle to overcome and a way to get out of jail.
Sek has been in and out of the juvenile system since he was 11. He was convicted of a home burglary and spent about seven months locked up, including a few months at the King County jail, he said.
A former gang member from the Burien area, Sek sold and used hard drugs, robbed houses and modeled his life around the gangster image he looked up to, he said.
While he has been able to keep up with the physical aspects of the camp — Sek hopes to be a fitness trainer and plans to open his own gym one day — it has been the mental challenges that motivate him.
Sek has gone through two rounds of the mock job interviews. They opened his eyes to the possibility of getting the material things he wants through honest hard work, not the gang life, he said.
“This trainee built the courage,” said Sek, sitting in a classroom. “This trainee feels like he can go out and do it for real. This trainee is motivated to do it.”
Sek graduated from the program May 22 and boarded a plane to Iowa, where he plans on living with his brother to start a new life.
Along with the military training, each teen can earn up to 4.25 high school credits and get extensive tutoring on coping skills and problem solving. Drug and alcohol counseling also are available.
“We are working on all aspects of their life,” Ankney said.
Teens who attend Camp Outlook have shown lower recidivism rates than those released from standard juvenile facilities, according to a 2004 study from the Washington State Institute for Public Policy. That includes trainees who graduate and those who wash out.
The job interviews are the brainchild of Bryan Lawson, who is in charge of education at the camp. They are a way to help the teens develop basic skills they need to get a job after release.
“To just generate a resume and cover letter was just another hoop for them to go through,” Lawson said. “This gives these kids a real world sense of what an interview feels like.”
Lawson first thought of the idea for the mock interviews last summer. He asked Jack Lester, who owns IGT Landscaping in Kennewick, to come talk with some of the teens.
Lester was so impressed with how receptive and prepared the teens were, he invited Lawson and Ankney to come speak the following day to the Tri-City chapter of Business Network International. About a month later, the first small group of business owners went to Camp Outlook.
Lawson set up what he calls a “speed dating format” — each teen gets to ask different business owners questions about their respective fields. The teens also get what Lawson calls an “actual interview,” which is a more formal one-on-one session where they give the interviewer a rsum and cover letter.
The interviewers challenge the teens to analyze where their life is headed and let them know that there are real opportunities for them once they are released, Lawson said.