Jonathan Kovach recently did something remarkable. Out of the blue, the 16-year-old Crofton resident went door to door in his neighborhood and apologized to people he had terrorized over the years with crimes including theft and vandalism.
He apologized, he said, for stealing cars and money from people he knew and for tormenting his family by getting suspended and finally expelled from school for making an arson threat.
No one pushed Jonathan, a student at Arundel High School, to say he was sorry. He did it, he said, because that's how he really felt, and because he wanted his neighbors to know that he had changed from menacing bully to respected teenager thanks to a life-altering boot camp and the persistence of his desperate mother.
A year ago this month, Jonathan entered VisionQuest, a boot camp-type national program, in which the teenage participants must adhere to military-like discipline and rigorous mental and physical activities. The months-long program in a family-like setting with adult mentors also includes daily schooling, treatment for substance and alcohol abuse and counseling, complemented with an emphasis on nature, fitness and history.
The multifaceted program, though seen by some as too severe, appears to have worked for Jonathan, who is back in school and thriving. But the road back was not easy, he admits. A bona fide bully, Jonathan acknowledged that his life could easily have turned out differently had his determined mother not found VisionQuest.
"If I'd kept going the way I was," Jonathan said, "I'd probably be dead or locked up by now."
The teenager's mother, Gina Kovach, 39, a math teacher at Brooklyn Park Middle School, concurs.
"He was creating havoc in our family and the community -- vandalizing cars, throwing eggs at homes, knocking on doors and taunting people," said Kovach, a single mother. "He was roaming the streets at all hours, and people couldn't relax knowing he was out there with his friends."
Indeed, Jonathan was headed down the wrong path. He was angry mostly because he felt abandoned by his father.
He was about 14 years old when he started his rap sheet of petty crimes. There were the arrests for stealing cars and money. In his freshman year at South River High School, he was expelled for making the arson threat. Jonathan was also drinking and using marijuana and prescription drugs, which only worsened his bad behavior.
Kovach said she tried to steer her son away from the trouble, but he wouldn't listen. He became increasingly belligerent, even apathetic. At one point, Jonathan's misbehavior became so out of control that while awaiting court dates, he would commit more crimes and rack up more arrests.
Then, in late 2001, Jonathan was sentenced to the Boys Village at Cheltenham, a juvenile detention center. It was there that he experienced his first wake-up call.
He was scared.
The place was cold and heartless, he recalled. His days were spent in a small room with a small window with bars. The rules were strict, and the punishments for defiance stern.
"I was horrified and scared," he said. "There were fights everyday. If you did something wrong, you'd get locked in a cell. You had to beg for a drink of water or to go to the bathroom."
Meanwhile, Gina Kovach was growing desperate. Her only son was out of control, and she had run out of ideas on how to help him. Then Kovach heard about Patti White, an Annapolis-based film producer who had made an award-winning documentary about at-risk youth entitled "America at Risk: Seeds of Hope."
Kovach called White's office in Annapolis. After reaching her, the mother learned that White had also produced a documentary about VisionQuest. Through White, Jonathan met the director and founder of VisionQuest and was awarded a scholarship to participate in the program. Thus began Jonathan's turnaround.
At the time, Jonathan was facing house arrest or a return to Cheltenham for car theft. Instead, the court sentenced him to the nearly 10-months-long VisionQuest program.
So, Jonathan left his familiar surroundings in Anne Arundel County and headed up the remote, winding Pennsylvania roads to VisionQuest's 50-acre base at the foot of South Mountain.
Jonathan was hesitant about the program's rigors.
"You don't know how to take it at first," he recalled. "If you do anything wrong, they're in your face, and you're doing jumping jacks and push-ups. It's hard. You get used to it, but it never gets easy."
Jonathan's situation was not unique.
In Anne Arundel County, there are an average of 555 citations handed out each month to young people, according to Vicki Mitchell, assistant director of the county's office of the state Department of Juvenile Justice. In addition, about 600 young people are on probation each month, and another 40 are in community detention, also known as house arrest.
"Things have got to change," said film producer White. "We recycle kids."
"We're taking a more holistic approach to each kid," said Lee Powers of the Juvenile Justice Department, adding that children and teens who enter the state juvenile system are subjected to more and earlier intervention. "So, the case managers stay with a child all the way through the system."
White supports the idea of giving troubled teenagers and their families more attention.
"Every time a kid goes through the system, they get more hardened, harder to reach and the crimes go up a notch."
Luckily, Jonathan was able to get help before his crimes turned more serious or violent. He recently described a typical day at the VisionQuest boot camp beginning at 6 a.m.
"They flip on the lights, scream and shout to get up," Jonathan said, adding that he then had only a few more minutes to get dressed and make his bed.
"Whatever you did," he remembered, "you had to say 'Yes, sir' ."
In time, Jonathan began to come around. He stopped talking back to adults and started looking for ways to enjoy his life, not abuse it.
Kovach, who would visit her son weekly in Pennsylvania, liked what the program was doing for her son.
"At VisionQuest, they look at everything," Kovach said. "They look at the whole kid. They won't let you walk away from your problems."
Indeed, the program (which has more than 20 locations around the country), and its principles based on a Native American practice of sending youths into the wilderness to build self-reliance and self-respect, seemed to agree with Jonathan. He had embraced the program's philosophy that stresses spiritual awareness, respect for self and others.
After four months, Jonathan progressed so much that he was chosen to participate in a special months-long, multistate horseback ride honoring both the victims of the 1996 Oklahoma City bombing and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America.
The ride, which also included two dozen Buffalo soldier reenactors and several cowboys from Oklahoma, made a stop in Annapolis this past July. By then, Jonathan had begun to miss his family. He wished he could get off his horse and go home.
Finally, in September, Jonathan's VisionQuest journey came to an end. A ceremony in Pennsylvania marked his successful completion of the program. It was time to go home and face his past and work on his future.
Back home, family and friends can see the difference. He is taller and thinner, having lost 80 pounds at boot camp. Outgoing and handsome, he is confident that he will not return to his former life.
He and his mother argued against the county's initial wish to enroll him in an alternative school. He told school officials that he was a changed teenager and responsible enough to return to a regular high school.
Jonathan was admitted to Arundel High, where he is a member of the varsity baseball and wrestling teams.
Jonathan knows that some people still won't trust him even with the recent strides he's made in his life. But he wants to prove them wrong.
"I've had to turn the other cheek," he said of his old friends and temptations. "I've come too far, worked too hard, to go back and screw up."