An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that Our House currently has space for 6 residents. This version has been corrected to say that it has space for 16 residents.
Charles S. Dutton, a native of Baltimore and an accomplished actor and director, had a tumultuous childhood. He said that from ages 13 to 27, he served time in every juvenile and adult penal facility in Maryland.
Dutton was honorary chair of the recent 20th anniversary celebration of Our House, a 140-acre farm in Brookeville with a residential job training program for at-risk young men. He talked about his own realization that he needed to change his life before it was too late.
Dutton had his epiphany while he was in solitary confinement at the Maryland State Penitentiary, where he served nearly eight years for possession of deadly weapons and the assault of a correctional officer.
He read a book about black playwrights and was inspired to ask the warden about directing a show that Christmas. While reciting his lines during the performance, Dutton observed the audience’s reaction and decided that acting was his calling.
Dutton went on to land more than 100 roles in film and television, including parts in “Rudy,” “Alien 3,” “A Time to Kill” and “The Piano Lesson,” as well as his own series, “Roc,” which is set in Baltimore.
Dutton said curiosity led him to visit Our House, where he was inspired to make a difference in residents’ lives.
“When I went out there, I was extremely impressed with what they are trying to do, their program and their facilities,” he said. “I was even more impressed that it was not run like a prison with barbed-wire fencing.”
Dutton said he would have felt like a hypocrite had he just walked away, doing nothing to help. So he is using his Hollywood connections to raise money for improvements to Our House.
Our House is led by Richard “Benny” Bienvenue. He began his career as a special education teacher in Arlington County teaching students 16 to 20, many of whom had been abused, neglected and abandoned. Because that was a day program, he said, when the kids went home at night and over the weekends, they were subjected to further dysfunction. He wanted to start a residential program to provide round-the-clock support to young men.
Bienvenue worked out an agreement with Camp Bennett, in Brookeville, that allowed him to start a residential program in exchange for fixing up the property. The program then moved to an old hospital in Howard County, where Bienvenue worked out the same deal. In 2000, he settled on the Brookeville farm, on Zion Road.
Our House serves at-risk adolescent males ages 16 to 21. The program is staffed by 11 full-time employees, 12 part-time workers and volunteers, Bienvenue said.The young men are referred by state agencies. Bienvenue requires them to fill out an application and go through an interview process as though they were applying for a job. The state pays approximately 80 percent of the tuition. Bienvenue said the program has to raise the rest.
The program includes hands-on training in trades such as carpentry, drywall and roofing, as well as life-skills training, academics and therapy sessions in the evenings. Bienvenue said that about 350 young men have gone through the program, which typically lasts about a year.
“We’ve had many more successes than failures,” Bienvenue said. “Most of our graduates are doing well and are employed, and some are making a lot more money than I do. These guys are now out paying taxes, instead of sucking from taxes.”
He hopes to build a dormitory that will house up to 24 students, an increase from the 16 that can be accommodated now. He said they have raised almost half of what they need for the project, estimated at $3 million. He is hopeful they will break ground in the fall. Dutton is also planning a benefit performance to raise money for the project.
As Bienvenue looks back, he said, he never envisioned the expansion of the curriculum and the variety of skills the students would leave with.
“It’s been a fascinating 20 years,” he said. “Some of the stories these kids have just make you cry. I want kids to do well. That is my life’s work.”