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Prairie Lakes Youth Programs strive for success stories

WILLMAR -- When the Prairie Lakes Youth Programs first opened its juvenile detention center in 1991, there was concern that Kandiyohi County would inherit troubled kids when their sentences were completed and they were discharged.

But Darin Balken, director of Prairie Lakes, said the programs at the facility have resulted in troubled juveniles becoming successful adults.

In a report to the Kandiyohi County commissioners on Tuesday, Balken told the story of a Bemidji youth convicted of assault and kidnapping.

After serving three years in Bemidji he was placed at Prairie Lakes in 20007 for a transitional living situation.

Balken admits there was concern about having someone with a serious criminal history at Prairie Lakes, but that the man is now in college, has a steady job in Willmar and is married.

"It's one of those stories, where you take a chance on a kid," said Balken.

Those stories are duplicated every day at Prairie Lakes, he said.

"We've had no trouble with our kids, as of yet," said Balken, giving the podium a good knock for good luck.

Prairie Lakes has a secure program for kids who are court-ordered, and a non-secure program that's voluntary and at the discretion of counties that use the facility, which is located on the MinnWest Technology campus. In 2007, the girls' and boys' homes were put under the umbrella of Prairie Lakes.

A year-round school, provided by the Willmar School District, is also part of the program.

The facility has experienced a steady increase in the number of youth served and the percentage of population capacity is strong. Balken said that's a sign that counties are pleased with the outcomes.

"The bottom line shows our program is working," said Balken.

There are 85 beds at Prairie Lakes with the average population at 72.1 in 2008.

The non-secure program is growing in popularity. When it was started in 2004 there was an average of 8-9 kids.

Now the average is 14-15, he said. About ten of those are currently working at jobs in the community. Finding those jobs required creating relationships with area businesses.

At first businesses were hesitant and unsure of what kind of employee they'd be getting.

Those concerns are no longer an issue, said Balken, because the kids show up on time and never call in sick because they'd rather be working than be inside the facility. The jobs help the youth learn "life skills" and get them prepared for leaving the programs.

Prairie Lakes, which is an enterprise program that's operated by five member-counties (Kandiyohi, Chippewa, Lac qui Parle, Swift and Yellow Medicine Counties), is now considering purchasing a house in Willmar that could provide transitional housing for homeless youth when they are discharged from Prairie Lakes.

Balken said there are 29 homeless youth currently in Kandiyohi County that could benefit from available housing.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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