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Michigan business sees potential in teens others might dismiss

Oct 1, 2014

One of the manufacturing lines at Peckham Incorporated in Lansing.
Credit Sarah Alvarez / Michigan Radio

Upwards of 200,000 young people in Michigan aren't working and aren't in school. For many of them, getting off the fringe of society won't be easy. Peckham Industries in Lansing is one place that is more than willing to work with these teens. 

As a shift ends on one of their manufacturing lines, a few people are still assembling harnesses for protective vests the military has ordered from Peckham. Others at are sitting straight backed at souped up sewing machines with cords and cables everywhere. This manufacturing business is just one of 5 different businesses Peckham runs in a unique relationship with people like James. He’s a worker and and a client.

“I’m learning how to cooperate with other people," he says.  "It’s a nice work environment.”

James isn’t really working in manufacturing yet, he’s just 16 years old.

“I’m too young to make things," he jokes.  "I just do like the littlest things, like fold clothes and take stickers off of them.” Somebody needs to fold the clothes. At Peckham the people doing the simplest to the most complicated tasks all have barriers to employment.

The bulk of Peckham’s workforce and client base are adults with disabilities and refugees from other countries. But about 10 percent are young people like James. He's here as a condition of his probation.

“People look at me differently because of the stuff I’ve done in my life." The pace of his speech picks up and his voice gets more animated as he says, "But here you see all kinds of people. So it’s like, it’s real cool to see people that actually get along that are different races, that have different disabilities and stuff.”

The people at Peckham think they can change how people see James, and how he sees himself, by putting him in a real work environment. Not to teach him how to fold clothes of course, but soft skills, like how to cooperate, follow through, how to thrive in a professional environment.

Scott LeRoy works for the Ingham County court system and is in charge of trying to get teens like James back on track. “There weren’t many groups stepping up to help these kids, except Peckham,” he says. Because county voters passed a juvenile justice millage more than a decade ago, the county courts can contract with Peckham to train some of the young people in the court's day treatment programs. 

Peckham makes some of its money from those contracts and some from its social enterprises, like a farm and the factories. The whole place has a vaguely Mr. Roger's Neighborhood feel to it. People say “Hi” to each other in the halls, the building is bright, there is art everywhere, there are vegetable gardens outside the windows, and the actual factory in the middle.

LeRoy says for these young people, being in a nice environment is part of the point. “When kids are doing well it should feel good to them," he says. 

This program isn’t cheap. The young people get trained, they get paid, there’s transportation. But it’s working. There are about 100 kids in Jame's program now. Fewer than 10 % of the kids, over the past two years, have re-offended. Most of them are in college now, or working full-time. LeRoy says, “It goes back-as a community we pay now or we pay later.”

Peckham is just a part of the puzzle for James, who knows he has challenges ahead of him, but who also says he wants to make the most of this opportunity.

“I’ve got to set my mind toward school more," he says. "I’m doing all right, but I was doing better. I’ve got to step up to the plate.”

The point of Peckham is to give James some skills, and another chance to step up to that plate.