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Gerdon Youth Center board can find compromise

Nearly 80 to 90 people showed up for the Gerdon Youth Center board meeting Thursday night, expecting to hear why popular program director Brent Lewis had been forced to resign by executive director Debbie Heazlitt or expecting to see Heazlitt lose her job.
Neither happened.
The board decided early on that it could not have an executive session because there had been no legal announcement, and it could not discuss ‘ or ask her to explain ‘ why Heazlitt asked for Lewis’s resignation because it’s considered a confidential personnel matter. No action was taken on board member David Dillman’s written motion to fire Heazlitt.
So, because neither reason why most people were there was discussed, the discussion became a healthy opportunity for the largely youthful audience to express their feelings on how much Lewis had meant to them and on another emotional issue: the Alternative School.
The Alternative School is a school for students who have been suspended or who have not succeeded in the normal classroom environment. They are referred to the GYC by the three school corporations, Harrison Circuit Judge H. Lloyd (Tad) Whitis and his probation department, and county government puts up about half the GYC’s annual budget.
Some board members and many others are not enthusiastic about the Alternative School program because they think it’s moving away from the GYC original mission, it’s ‘squashing’ other programs, and it means that students who have been into drugs and alcohol are rubbing shoulders, perhaps even supplying drugs to younger kids who come to the GYC after school for directed activities. Some people, including many teenagers, fear the GYC is getting a bad name because of drugs.
Here’s where the paradox comes in. Many students at last week’s meeting stood up and dramatically testified to success in getting off the street and away from drugs by coming to the GYC. This is where their life was turned around, a fact confirmed by parents, in some cases. But now they’re afraid the presence of drugs or drug users at the GYC will lead youngsters into the dangerous life from which they had just escaped.
Genarose Turner stood up and reminded everyone that the original purpose of the GYC was to open its doors to all kids, good and bad. The GYC was to be a haven for kids who otherwise might have no future. She wanted everyone there, not just those who know how to behave.
The GYC is in crisis. The board is clearly split between those who support Lewis and those who support Heazlitt. It isn’t clear where they stand on the Alternative School, because some members speak out of both sides of their mouths simultaneously, saying it’s a great program, although it threatens the GYC. The board even made a rash decision last week to form an executive committee for the sole purpose of hamstringing Heazlitt’s ability to hire and fire over the next few weeks, which is clearly her perrogative.
Everyone needs to step back and take a deep breath and look for a way out of this mess. Important decisions do not have to be made in haste. The GYC has had outstanding success because its founders had a real vision to help underprivileged youth. They worked hard, raised money and rebuilt an old school. Many volunteers over the years have stepped forward to work with the kids by the hour, especially local police officers.
The GYC has gotten thousands of dollars of funding from the county government and grants. Good, dedicated people were hired to run the programs, people like Brent Lewis. A good administrator, Debbie Heazlitt, was hired to administer and represent the Youth Center and the Alternative School, seek funding, do the board’s will, and fulfull the mission statement.
Obviously, Heazlitt and Lewis have clashed on some issues, particularly the Alternative School, and, instead of working it out amongst themselves, they sought support from individual board members. Some board members have acted individually, not as a board. Everyone involved, it seems, has made some mistakes that they wish they could take back.
Mistakes happen. No revelation there, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be corrected by cool heads.
The board has decided to meet Thursday night in executive session. It has a lot to talk about, including its role in the community, how it should work together for the best interests of at-risk young people who need good adult supervision and discipline, and the long-term future of Gerdon Youth Center, not just the next few days.
We think there may be a way to bring back Lewis with perhaps a new job description, and reassure Heazlitt of her administrative authority by dissolving the ill-conceived ‘executive committee.’ The GYC and the Alternative School can succeed. This is a golden opportunity for the board to show the youngsters, the staff and the community how it can work together as mature, reasonable people to resolve conflict in a peaceful manner.