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ACTON — Evan Petersen's job working the grill at the Yellowstone Drag Strip is about much more than flipping burgers and keeping the grill clean.

To hear the 17-year-old and those close to him tell it, those are just secondary compared to the life and social skills he's picked up over the summer months since he began working at the track.

"Oh, it's so many things," he said. "It's problem-solving, things like that. I'd say I've learned to handle people better."

Evan's job in Acton, where nearby work options are mostly limited to a recently reopened bar and restaurant or surrounding farms and ranches, happened thanks to the Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch's Individual Placement and Support Program.

The program helps youth and young adults, 15 to 24, who are enrolled in YBGR case management services and receive mental and emotional health support by helping them find and keep jobs in the community.

"It's probably one of the more awesome programs I've ever worked with because of how they represent the clients," said Robert Kuhr, individual placement and support supervisor at the Boys and Girls Ranch. "We are listening to the client and their needs and not trying to place them because of our needs."

Evan's duties at the family-owned drag strip usually begin at about 10:30 a.m. on race days, when he pulls out equipment and gets the grill fired up for hungry spectators.

From there, he gets the food cooking and spends the rest of the day staffing the barbecue station.

An admitted motorhead who's spent plenty of time fixing up his family's cars, Evan also gets the chance to check out the souped-up, rumbling vehicles as they race by or wait for their turn on the track.

"It's fun, getting to see the cars go down the track," he said. "You can feel the heat coming from them. I love the smell of burning rubber and NOS."

Fitting in

Evan and his mother, Linda Lacy, moved to Acton last year. Getting settled in to a new town can be tough on any teenager, and that was especially true for Evan, who also came in with social and behavioral issues and attends school in Broadview.

He loves working on cars and motorcycles, and he said there's almost nothing he'd rather do than hit a river or lake, just floating or spending the day fishing, "because it takes patience."

But at school he had a tough time fitting in and making friends.

A school counselor suggested to Lacy that she look at YBGR to aid Evan. Lacy said she was initially hesitant, but they decided to give it a shot. The ranch has now been providing services to Evan for more than a year.

"It's been fantastic," Lacy said. "As a teenager, if you don't fit in at school at first, you tend to be an outsider. But the support he gets (at YBGR), it's just incredible."

Eventually, Evan told his first case manager that he'd like to find some kind of work.

"I just needed something to do over the summer," he said. "I got so tired of sitting around the house every day, so I told my case manager I'd like a job for the summer."

The YBGR IPS program works to find jobs that fit individual clients, including matching them based on their interests, location and transportation availability.

With just a few businesses in the Acton area and equally limited transportation at home — his mom's car, which she uses frequently, or his bicycle — staff set about finding something that met Evan's needs.

They contacted the Yellowstone Drag Strip, just a few miles from Evan's home, and the owners liked the idea of helping out and bringing in another helping hand.

"They had already been working with him, and we're basically the closest thing to him," said Julie Mavencamp, whose family owns and operates the drag strip. "I talked with the people at the ranch, and I truly believe in programs like this."

How it works

Kuhr took over the IPS program in early 2015. He said one of its main purposes to give teens and young adults confidence and help them succeed later in life by putting them in a healthy work environment.

"A job gives people worth," he said. "And when you listen to somebody, that also gives people worth. We're trying to help someone learn skills that they'll have for the rest of their life."

Based on a model developed by the Dartmouth Psychiatric Research Center — which also provides its own staff to give guidance in running the program — it aims to improve self-esteem, self-management, independent living skills and family relationships.

An entire team of support staff helps out clients who are seeking work through the program, starting with an employment specialist who helps hook them up with resources for the job search but also including case workers, home workers and "whoever else is involved with that youth" through the ranch, Kuhr said.

So far, it has.

He noted that it's not a miracle program, that there's no magic wand that will make it a success for every person who comes in, but it does provide all of them the opportunity to gain important skills and experience that can help them later on.

Finding success

In late May and with a job to which he could ride his bicycle — later in the summer, he fixed up an old car of his mom's to use — Evan began working at the drag strip, first in the concession area and then getting promoted to the grill.

Evan, his family, YBGR staff and management at the strip all say it's been a good fit for him and that he's made significant strides while working there.

"Honestly, I can't thank YBGR and the Yellowstone Drag Strip enough for giving him the chance," Lacy said. "It's really boosted his confidence and self-esteem. He's like a whole different person now."

One of Evan's biggest challenges, he said, has been not getting frustrated with people and dealing with them on a day-to-day basis, but that's improved during his time working at the strip thanks to the daily interactions necessary for the job.

"I've learned many things," he said. "How to keep with the pace, how to work under pressure, how to be around people. I've learned that I just have to let some things roll off my back."

Mavencamp said that Evan working with and around more people was part of the plan worked out with the YBGR IPS program in an effort to improve his interpersonal skills.

She said that as Evan settled into the job, it's been nothing but a success.

"Watching how he's grown over the summer has been amazing," she said. "Everyone likes him, he's very friendly and has developed some job skills that are so important. He's a good employee; he's always on time. He's a good kid."

On a recent September day, Kuhr was driving Evan and asked how he was doing. Evan's answer of, "I'm trying to be good," showed Kuhr that the teen has been growing in his outlook and responses.

Because the job also comes with a paycheck, Evan has been helping out his mom with odds and ends, but he's saving most of the money to buy a horse.

But to Evan and Lacy, who said she'd recommend YBGR's services to any parent who needs them, the experience and skills from working might be worth it regardless.

"I am very proud," Lacy said. "Sometimes I'll look over at him and just have to tell him that, out of the blue."