Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

December 11, 2008

Doors to Virginia Wilderness Institute will close at year’s end

By CHARLES OWENS

GRUNDY, Va. — A program that has worked since 1998 to provide academic and vocational instruction to at-risk youth in Southwest Virginia will be closing its doors effective Dec. 31.

The Associated Marine Institutes confirmed Thursday morning that all state funding for the Virginia Wilderness Institute in Buchanan County has been eliminated effective Dec. 31, much earlier than when the current budget year ends in June 2009.

The agency, and its 30 employees, were notified of the state funding cuts Thursday morning, Keith Willoughby, a business development director with the Associated Marines Institute, said. Willoughby said the staff took the news well. He said the remaining youth will be leaving the facility next week.

“That’s the whole travesty of this,” Willoughby said. “Yes, you hate to lose jobs, but you are going to have 50 kids a year now that won’t get the service that VWI offers. Most of these kids are going to become deeper in the system at a greater loss of meaningful life, but also at a greater financial loss to the state.”

Funding for the institute is being eliminated by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine effective Dec. 31. Kaine ordered the funding cut in response to a $2.5 billion budget shortfall in the Commonwealth . The governor also has proposed closing the Tazewell Day Report Center, and Camp 31 in Tazewell County.

“I thought the role of the state was to look after those that can not speak for themselves - our kids,” Ginger Branton, chairwoman of the VWI board, said in a press release issued Thursday by the Associated Marine Institutes. “We trust our government to look out for the future of our youth, and depend upon our legislature to fund good programs such as ours that make a difference in kids’ lives. It’s a sad day when we have to look into our kids’ eyes and tell them they have no place to go — but jail.”

Despite the funding loss, the fight to save the VWI continues, Sen. Phillip Puckett, D-Russell said.

“We will do what we need to do to keep the doors open,” Puckett said. “We know that our challenge is greater if VWI has to close its doors for an extended period of time. Once we convene for session in January, we will work hard to restore funds to VWI to operate in the future. The fight is not over.”

The Associated Marine Institutes contracts with the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice to manage and operate the 32-bed facility in Southwest Virginia. Since its opening in 1998, the Buchanan County-based program has provided service to more than 400 youth and their families. Just last year, the agency served 49 youth with an average completion rate of 95 percent. Participating youth received 345 college credits and 41 GEDs.

Willoughby said the goal of the program is to assist at-risk youth with achieving educational success, and ultimately reduce the likelihood for involvement in the judicial system.

According to the Associated Marine Institute press release, the VWI has one of the lowest recidivism levels in the Commonwealth. According to the agency, 62 percent of all youth that exited VWI earned their GED or high school diploma. More than 83 percent of the juveniles that exited the program during the 2007-2008 school year earned their GED while enrolled. Another 345 college credits were earned by students while enrolled at VWI during the 207-2008 school year.

– Contact Charles Owens at cowens@bdtonline.com