MENDHAM, N.J. - Kathleen, a bright eyed teenage girl stood up from her desk as she finished an English class Thursday. Minutes earlier, she had discussed a composition assignment with her teacher.
Although resembling a prep-school student, Kathleen had a different background. Just eight months earlier, she was shooting heroin daily and snorting coke, and was "on the run" from police - and when picked up on drug charges, she assaulted a police officer and kicked out his patrol car window.
Standing in Daytop Mendham adolescent substance abuse rehabilitation center, she talked of how her future now looks very promising, and how she looked forward to college and a career in psychology or social work. Her transformation, she said, was due to the Daytop program.
Town of Essex farmer Sandy Lewis, a retired Wall Street executive, is proposing to establish a similar program in Essex County. His preferred site is the former Essex County Home in Whallonsburg, not far from his organic farm operation.
Lewis is seeking community support for such a facility, a necessary first step before the state will allow it to open - so he sponsored a trip for county officials to visit the rehab center in Mendham, N.J. May 20.
Kathleen was one of dozens of teens who made a big impression when Essex County officials visited the facility, watching classroom activities and participating in group sessions.
Lewis County Supervisor David Blades, a former state Trooper, said he was surprised with the courtesy, attentiveness and thoughtfulness that the teens demonstrated, particularly those who were reputed to be members of urban gangs. Blades was also a school principal and BOCES administrator.
"All my preconceived notions about rehabilitation have been blown out of the water," he told the teens. "I know you're going to be very proud of what you've accomplished in life."
Essex County Assistant District Attorney Brian Felton said he was impressed by how the former addicts took responsibility for their actions, whether it was the behavior in their past life, or now freely admitting to other behavior violations like littering, or snubbing others.
"It looks like the program is really making a difference in each of their lives," he said. "Each teenager is in a different phase, and you can detect a marked difference - it's very telling to the program's success."
He said he was surprised, as a prosecutor and county Drug Court facilitator, over their sensitivity to others' needs and feelings, openly talk about their own issues, and listen intently to both peers and adults.
"Their openness as to their past and their desire to change was amazing," Felton said. "Despite what they've been through, they still have hopes and goals."
Calvin Cumm of Whallonsburg, a neighbor of Lewis' farm, said he also was impressed about how people stood up and admitted wrongdoing.
"It looks like they are really learning integrity, which is really neat," he said. "Some neighbors near the Old County Home have been worried about these kids being out in their community, but I don't think anything like that will happen."
For more details about what Essex County officials saw on their trip to Mendham, N.J., visit www.denpubs.com.