By Ross Markman
Beyond the tractors, pickups and garbage trucks, five teenagers apply water sealant to long slabs of cedar. The smell, mixed with that of the garbage trucks, is an unpleasant one.
One look at these kids' faces and you know they're not here for fun. You know they're not enjoying the task at hand. They'd rather be elsewhere, anywhere.
But they can't be. They have court-mandated community service hours to perform.
The courts have labeled them as juvenile offenders. Havre Mayor Bob Rice calls them good kids who've made a mistake. Every day after school and for up to six hours on Saturdays Rice and his teenage cleanup crew work to beautify Havre.
They've swept First Street, collected trash at the Sixth Avenue Ballpark and washed police cruisers.
Some are in trouble for vandalism or for not going to school. Others were caught growing marijuana in their basement or possessing alcohol, Rice said.
One has 60 hours of community service to do, while most are in the 25- to 30-hour range.
Rice treats them all the same.
"I don't abuse them and I never curse at them," he said. "I just like kids, so I try to look at the best in all of them."
Thursday, Rice and his crew worked at the Havre city shop. They're constructing trash receptacles that will be placed throughout the downtown area. The city shop workers, Rice said, helped build the frames. The rest of the job is up to the kids.
"This is the hardest thing he gave us yet," said Chris, who wore orange gloves to shield his hands from the water sealant. "But it's not that bad."
Chris is 13 years old and wrapping up his community service hours. He brushed the water sealant onto the wood at a frantic pace, as if the first to finish won a prize.
"They wanna get it over with and get the hell outta here," Rice said.
Chris dreams of one day becoming a police officer. Rice has promised him a ride in a police car when he completes his community service.
"Get the sides, Chris. Get the sides, too," Rice instructed.
The boy smiled and complied.
Next to Chris is 14-year-old Bill and 15-year-old Thomas, both of whom have 30 hours to fulfill. They, too, apply sealant to the wood. And they too are swift at hand with a brush.
Thomas has finished about one-third of his hours, mostly painting. The work isn't too taxing, and, Rice, he said, treats them fairly.
"He's positive most of the time," Thomas said. "But if we're late, he gets kind of mad."
Rice has two fundamental rules for his cleanup crew: be on time and don't goof off.
"If you can't show up, you call," he said. "When you show up late, it's an extra hour."
The alternative to working with Havre's mayor, the kids say, isn't one they relish. It's either working at the Human Resources Development Council, washing clothes at the Salvation Army or serving food at the soup kitchen on Second Street.
"This is definitely better than working at the soup kitchen," Thomas said.
Rice isn't so sure.
"One kid came back to me and said, I wouldn't want to screw up now,'" Rice said.
All five working on Thursday agreed. They never want to be back in this position.
"It's a pain. It's definitely not fun," 17-year-old Richard said.
"It gets hard sometimes," Karl, 18, chimed in. "I don't want to be here again."
Nine kids have completed their community services hours working with Rice. None have returned.
"That's my whole idea," Rice said. "I don't want to see them back."
No females have participated in the mayor's program. And that may not be a bad thing, he said.
"It's probably better for me," Rice said. "Trying to keep the girls and boys working together, I dealt with that in the Navy. It's tough."
Once they wrap up their hours, Rice has the kids write an essay about who they consider to be a role model.
"The last kid that left, Shaquille O'Neal was his role model because he gave lots of money to the community. I said, That's because he has lots of money to give,'" Rice said.
"The big thing we talk about is why they're here," he added. "Some say it's a free country. Some say if somebody hadn't narked on them, they wouldn't be here."
It doesn't matter what they did to get there, Rice said, he treats them all equally. Following completion of their community hours, Rice has recommended several of the kids for after-school jobs.
"If you get into trouble, you gotta be held accountable for your actions," he said. "I think they're all good kids. But just like a lot of adults, they made a mistake."
Editor's note: The names of the teenagers have been changed to protect their anonymity. The Havre Daily News does not identify juvenile offenders.