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Operation Fresh Start announcement

Operation Fresh Start Executive Director Gregory Markle, left, and program participants, from left, Antonio Ciarletta, Erieona Martin and Cine Hill discuss plans for expanding the group's programming Tuesday morning. 

Amidst growing concerns about violent crime in Madison, Operation Fresh Start on Tuesday unveiled plans to expand programming to a wider range of at-risk youths.

The nonprofit, which helps teens and young adults ages 16 to 24 gain life skills and finish high school, said it will begin rolling out several changes this summer in an effort to help more youths become self-sufficient.

Many of the organization’s participants earn money by working on either construction or conservation projects while studying to earn their high school diplomas. Participants can also receive counseling and help finding future jobs.

The changes — including expanding the program’s scope to incorporate more communities throughout Dane County — could potentially help curb violence in the city and its surrounding areas, said Gregory Markle, Operation Fresh Start’s executive director.

“The reality is young people who are making bad choices often are the cause of some of this violence in the communities,” he said. “Attaching young people to a positive step forward can help address this issue.”

The changes are part of the organization’s plans to double its programs within five years, Markle said.

That plan also includes some longer-term projects, such as moving into a location larger than the current facility at 1925 Winnebago St.

Some soon-to-be-implemented changes include hiring additional staff and launching a new program to help recent high school graduates develop employment skills, find a career and plan for their future.

The group also has worked with the Madison School District to extend the age at which program participants can receive a high school diploma from 21 to 24.

Antonio Ciarletta, 19, has been earning money by working construction through the organization for about a month. He said the additional programming could help make communities safer by keeping young people busy and giving them something to work toward.

“I’ve been through other programs … nothing is quite like this program,” he said. “It’s more than just teachers and students. It’s more like a family.”

Operation Fresh Start’s recent expansions are primarily funded through private donations and money from the city of Madison and the Workforce Development Board of South Central Wisconsin.

Funds from the city will go toward youth employment efforts, while Workforce Development money will help create the group’s new programming in career-specific and on-the-job training.

Through increased donations and funds from the city and the Workforce Development Board, the group has raised $400,000 of their expansion campaign’s yearly $1 million goal, Markle said.

As Operation Fresh Start continues to grow, Markle said hiring devoted staff members and keeping participant-to-staff ratios low will continue to be high priorities.

“The staff’s dedication to the young people and helping them succeed is enormous,” he said.

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