Duty, Honor, Country: Students Find Sense of Belonging in Young Marines Unit for Kids with Special Needs

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Young Marines at Kennedy Krieger High SchoolAdolescence isn't easy it's a tough road filled with all sorts of risky possibilities, from school failure and conflict with parents to more dangerous threats like involvement in drugs and gangs. For teens with developmental disabilities, the path to adulthood can be even more difficult, with a greater chance of picking up destructive habits or falling in with the wrong crowd.

That's why the Young Marines of Central Maryland unit at Kennedy Krieger High School and Career Technology Center is such a valuable opportunity for students. "I think the reason a lot of kids get into gangs and other negative situations is because they're looking for a sense of belonging," says 1st Sergeant Vivian Price- Butler, who directs the school's Young Marines unit. "In Young Marines, they get that sense of belonging, but to something that instills the values of being good citizens, respecting discipline and honoring their country."

While Young Marines units exist in nearly every state, Kennedy Krieger's program is the only one in the country dedicated to special education students. Although most of the program's adult leaders are former, retired, active duty or reserve members of the United States Marine Corps, the program is not designed to encourage children to join the military themselves. Instead, Young Marines focuses on character building, leadership and living a healthy and drug-free lifestyle. Retired Marine Buzz Williams, a former Kennedy Krieger principal, founded the Central Maryland program in 1993. Price-Butler, who retired Dec. 1 after a combined 26 years in the Reserves and on active duty, took the reins in 2000.

The Young Marines at Kennedy Krieger High School participate in many community service activities, from collecting and distributing toys to needy children to sending care packages to troops overseas to visiting Veterans Administration hospitals to marching in local parades. Last year, the group's color guard came in second in a "Massing of the Colors" competition of units from throughout Maryland. But for most students, the highlight of the program is its annual Boot Camp. Led by volunteer active duty Marines, the three-day camp exposes new "recruits" to the physical training and mental stress required of service people and gives "veterans" the chance to hone their leadership skills.

Most of the students involved in the Kennedy Krieger Young Marines program participate in Price-Butler's Military Science class. Price-Butler uses a curriculum created for the official Young Marine handbook and some Junior Reserve Officer Training Corp (JROTC) materials and adapts them to her students' reading comprehension levels. The course includes information on map reading, military time, the phonetic alphabet, the history of the flag and the details of burial honors. "It's the same information an active duty Marine would have at the Private First Class level," Price-Butler says.

Although most Kennedy Krieger Young Marines are high school students, the program does include a small group of students at the Middle School. The built-in support system appealed to Young Marine Staff Seargent Vernon Lockard. "I joined in middle school because I saw my friends and people I admired doing it," says Lockard, an 18-year-old Kennedy Krieger senior. "I stayed involved because I really like the structure of it, how your performance is rewarded when you get promoted to a higher rank. I think it helps kids stay out of trouble. I'm definitely more organized now and show better discipline with my parents. Friends of mine from other schools are seeing what we do and joining JROTC groups when they never thought of that before."

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