A turning point in the road

DEERFIELD BEACH, FLA. — He's grateful for the gray uniform of a garage mechanic, and says he's lucky it bears his name instead of a prison ID number.

Because Garrett Stolarczuk has been arrested 15 times: four burglaries, three grand thefts, three credit card fraud charges, battery. He was spending more time in court than in school, and prison loomed.

"But now I have a once-in-a-lifetime chance," the 16-year-old says. His last time in court, Broward Circuit Judge Merrilee Ehrlich recommended that Stolarczuk find himself a passion.

She knew he had an interest in cars, so she referred him to the Youth Automotive Training Center. He'll spend this school year learning auto repair, academic basics and even social niceties like how to knot a tie.

"It's motivation for me to stay out of trouble," says Stolarczuk, who's trying to settle down after eight years bouncing around South Florida foster homes. Still on house arrest, he has been adopted by a Weston man.


As a group, teens are a troubled segment of the population, especially teens like Stolarczuk who lack the anchors that supportive families provide. But there are still agencies out there doing their best to turn around youths who are headed for trouble and help them make good choices to build worthy lives.

The Youth Automotive Training Center, started by car magnate Jim Moran 25 years ago, is among them. Moran took what he knew — the auto business — and extended his philanthropic arm to create the nonprofit center for boys and girls ages 16-21.

Though a judge gave the center a jump start as part of Moran's 1984 plea deal for tax evasion, he made it an enduring legacy before his death in 2007. Moran gave tens of millions to charity, but the center had a unique place in his heart, his widow says.

"YATC is about giving another chance, maybe a second or third one, to those young people who everyone else has given up on," says Jan Moran. "It gave him, and it still gives me, great personal satisfaction in helping each one of them succeed."

Some hope to earn Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) Certification, and well-paying jobs as garage technicians, or related automotive positions. But the center isn't a grease monkey farm.

"The goal isn't 100 percent people in the automotive industry," executive director Terry Routley says. "The goal is to get them to pursue a dream, and a career."

They have to want to change, Routley notes. Addiction treatment agencies, judges and recent graduates refer youths to the center, and each summer the staff winnows about 150 candidates to 30. For many, it could be their last change: 22 have some kind of arrest record, and 25 have had drug issues. (The center conducts regular drug tests.)

In 2001 the center moved from a one-room building in Hollywood to a 16,000-square-foot complex in Deerfield Beach. Academic classrooms, a computer room, staff offices and a reception area surround the focal point: a 10-bay garage with clean floors and plenty of cars waiting outside.


With a staff of 11, the center excels at hand-holding. Academics, such as reading, English and math, are taught because about half the students do not have high school diplomas. Two advisers meet individually with students to talk about their drug or alcohol problems. Guest instructors talk about everything from dental and sexual hygiene to how to interview for a job.

Staff members stop at the nearby Tri-Rail station and bus stops to pick up some students before classes start at 9 a.m. and drop them off after they end at 3:30 p.m. When students must appear in court to report on their progress, a staff member is there, too. And when two students applied for clerking or stocking jobs at Home Depot, a staffer helped them fill out the form — and took them to the interview.

Then there are the giveaways. The JM Family Food Service comes by daily at lunchtime, with meat loaf, pork chops or turkey, gratis. An advisory boards lines up icebreaker picnics and bowling trips; a cleaning service washes the garage/school uniforms daily. And on Thanksgiving, the center gave each student a turkey and trimmings in a gift-wrapped basket.

It's all by donation, they say. Some people give computers, some give their cars for the students to work on, and others — especially JM Family employees — give their time to teach. Still others give cash.

And even with all that love, everyone knows a student might not make it. Routley says more than 90 percent go on to join the workforce, but it's often a bumpy road.

Anthony Mitchell, 18, is trying to navigate the bumps. He applied to the center while he was enrolled in Here's Help, a drug rehabilitation center in Opa-locka. He dropped out of school his sophomore year and tested at third-grade level. Being the oldest of seven siblings, and with a grandma, mother and two cousins also jammed into a modest house, he tried to find jobs cutting grass and washing cars.

But he started running with a drug crowd, he says, and eventually was arrested for battery, robbery and drug possession.

"I was being a follower, not a leader," says Mitchell, who graduated from Here's Help three weeks ago, and now has trouble making it from Miami to the center, missing a few days. "It's going to take time to turn it around. I'm not thinking about this second, but years from now. But I see myself being successful.


"With my family, I have to be the example."

The center has graduated 491 students in its 25 years, including Jason Smith, 25, a 2006 alum who now is a lube tech at JM Lexus. Smith, of Coral Springs, and his wife came back this month to visit Routley and show off their newborn baby. Other alums have returned as instructors and one sits on the board of ditrectors.

"When I came here I really didn't know anything about cars," Smith says. "But learning that wasn't that hard. I'm prouder that I learned how to be responsible."

Each May, the center puts on a cap-and-gown graduation ceremony, attended by football stars such as Dan Marino and Jason Taylor.

Anthony Peglow hopes to be there. Peglow, 17, of Boca Raton, already has his high school diploma and went to a technical school. He knows how to do brake jobs, balance tires, change oil and replace fuel pumps.

Some day, when your car breaks down, he might be the one to fix it.

"I definitely want to own my own shop," he says. "Maybe I'll hire some of the friends I met here to help work there."

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