Research shows a strong correlation between adverse childhood experiences, like abuse or neglect, and children in the criminal justice system.

“The more disadvantages and trauma you’ve had in your life, the less likely you are to develop the social and emotional skills to succeed in life,” said WSU Extension Associate Professor Brian Brandt.

To help increase the chances of life success for kids who face those disadvantages, Pierce County Parks and Recreationand Pierce County Juvenile Court worked with WSU Extension and other organizations to create the Pierce Outdoor LIFE (Leadership Instruction & Field Experiences) program to help at-risk kids.

That program received a Standing Ovation Award from Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier at a banquet on Oct. 23.

“The Parks and Rec folks run a really good recreation program, which was a great place to start for this program,” Brandt said. “They included us on the grant because we have a really strong track record with social-emotional learning programs.”

Social-emotional learning is the process of developing the self-awareness, self-control, and interpersonal skills that allow students, and adults, to lead successful lives.

“Some people need more help and support, and those tend to be the kids that get referred into the court system,” Brandt said.

The Outdoor LIFE Program is a positive youth development program for children ages 13-17.

“At-risk youth often struggle with school attendance, unhealthy relationships, crime, and violence due to poor social skills, lack of understanding of their learning style, interpersonal conflict, and unresolved personal issues,” according to the program’s website.

Brandt said the Outdoor LIFE Program is very effective, but is a huge shift in how kids in juvenile probation programs have long been seen. Positive approaches show better success than punishment.

“Before, we would look at a kid in legal trouble and say ‘What is wrong with you?’” Brandt said. “Now we look at that same child and say ‘What happened to you?’ It comes from a place of empathy, not blame.”

The program had very positive results in its first year, so much that the funding organization has renewed it for another year.

“The youth keep coming back,” Brandt said. “The program has outstanding attendance records compared to traditional programs.”

“We’re really excited, and happy that our funders see the benefit of what we’re doing,” he said. “To be recognized by Pierce County leadership is icing on the cake. We hope we can keep doing this work for years to come.”