The Department of Juvenile Justice teamed up this week with the Teen Outreach Program (TOP) and Students Working Against Tobacco (SWAT) to clean up area beaches.

The Department of Juvenile Justice teamed up this week with the Teen Outreach Program (TOP) and Students Working Against Tobacco (SWAT) to clean up area beaches.

The cleanup crews, made up of students ages 10-18, walk a six-mile strip of beach usually starting from the canal in St. Joe Beach and going as far as the Lookout Lounge or Toucan’s in Mexico Beach.

Four of the students took part in Monday’s post-Fourth of July cleanup to clear the beach of used fireworks, trash and cigarette butts.

Kids are provided with trash bags, gloves and bottled water and spend four hours combing the beach for the debris to keep the area beautiful.

Shoes are optional.

TOP and SWAT are part of the Gulf County Department of Health and provide volunteer opportunities in Port St. Joe and Wewahitchka. The Department of Juvenile Justice brings youth who have been in legal trouble, are currently on probation and required to complete community service hours.

Kelly Faircloth, Juvenile Probation Officer for Gulf County, is on his third year of the program and has seen the benefits to getting kids out and getting them active in the community.

“There are limited opportunities for community service in the area,” he said. “The goal is to have the youth around positive role models within the community.”

For Faircloth, his reward is getting to spend the time walking the beach and working alongside the kids. He realized that sometimes they just need someone to speak with or someone to listen as they speak freely.

During some of the activities, kids need a friendly ear, but other times they’re happy to get out on the beach for a footrace between litter pickups.

“It’s not a punitive job,” said Faircloth. “We have fun while we do it.”

Jessie Hayes, Senior Human Services Program Specialist and TOP Facilitator for the Department of Health, has worked with TOP for two years.

She also teaches a health and physical education class at Port St. Joe Jr./Sr. High School.

Her class requires 20 hours of community service and the students actively look for ways to improve the community.

The Teen Outreach Program has a goal of decreasing adolescent pregnancy and increase school success using a positive youth development curriculum that encourages healthy behavior, life skills and a sense of purpose.

“The best part is seeing kids change and learn through community service,” said Hayes.

Hayes and Faircloth enjoy doing their part in encouraging the youth of Gulf County to grow up making positive choices and have seen the effects first hand.

Faircloth reported that during the last beach walk cleanup, some community partners out of Wewahitchka joined the activity, and after speaking with one of the young men, they were so impressed with his attitude and the interaction they had with him that they offered him a paid position.

“Good things come from it,” said Faircloth. “For some, it can change lives.”

The next project for the group will take place on July 18 at Peters Park in Port St. Joe.

Volunteers and kids in the juvenile program will construct a concession stand from the ground up. They’ll install a kitchen with sink and refrigerator and hope it will be the first step toward solidifying a T-ball league for the area.

TOP will purchase paint and supplies for the restoration and county employee Patrick Carpenter will donate his time teaching kids basic carpentry skills. Roads leading into the park will also be painted and plans have been made to refurbish on-site dugouts and gazebos.

Though the beach cleanup crew may not have been quite awake at the 9 a.m. call time, as they traversed the sandy terrain onto St. Joe Beach, a nearby resident appeared on their porch and thanked the group for their service.

Faircloth encourages local agencies to give him a call at 850-258-7345 to get their youth involved in various projects that will keep the community looking great.

“Come out and let’s clean the beach together,” said Faircloth.