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Dan Sharp, the new director of the Buchanan County Academy, urges the juveniles in his care to improve their life skills.

A Buchanan County program for juvenile offenders seeks to improve their missing skills to enable them to become more self-sufficient.

“What helps are relationships and life skills, teaching them about meeting people, becoming more self-sufficient, learning how to communicate their needs and getting those needs met in a healthy way,” said Dan Sharp, director of the Buchanan County Juvenile Academy.

While the academy can handle up to 30 kids, typically it only has about 20 at any given time. The average length of stay is about four months.

“We receive about 60 kids a year,” Sharp said. “But these are all good kids who made some bad choices.”

Buchanan County’s juvenile system has a variety of programs and handles many more than 60 kids a year. Youth are diverted into programs designed to deal with their specific problems and needs, Sharp said. In some cases, the academy, its staff and programs are a positive alternative to meet a juvenile’s needs, he said.

At the academy, day-to-day events are classroom- or task-oriented, with the focus on life skills so the juveniles can be more productive in what they do. Things like learning how to make change, write a check and choosing an appropriate time to go to bed can be part of the life skills training.

“These children are not high-level offenders,” Sharp said. “I want the community to know these are good kids learning how to live better lives and contribute to their community.”

The young people work on all sorts of projects to give back to the community, from simple things like picking up trash and developing manners to learning to garden and grow some of their own food needs, he said.

This year, the garden has corn, asparagus, green beans and sweet potatoes, thanks to support from the local Missouri Extension office. In the classrooms, kids learn about their plants. In the garden, they weed and watch their plants grow.

Next to the academy is Missouri’s smallest juvenile detention facility. The facility is a different program than the academy. It can hold up to six juveniles in detention.

But in either case, keeping kids locally instead of sending them to the state is cheaper for taxpayers, Sharp said. And it’s better for the young people because about 84 percent will grow up and live out their lives here in Buchanan County, he said.

Marshall White can be reached at marshall.white@newspressnow.com. Follow him on Twitter: @SJNPWhite.