Youth Developmental Enterprises is celebrating the 20th anniversary of a work program that has helped more than 13,000 young men gain self-esteem, work experience and a sense of accomplishment.

The "Hawaii experience" takes young men 15 and older from across the country to Hawaii where they perform a number of jobs in and around the pineapple and macadamia nut fields. While there, they earn wages, pay one-third of the cost of room and board and live on an allowance. The rest of the money is sent home or put in savings until the program ends.Participants spend anywhere from 16 weeks to 11 months working with the program.

"The program is not for every young man," said Ross Olsen, founder and president of YDE. "It's very structured. The purpose is an opportunity to work in a structured environment free of alcohol, drugs and tobacco. These young men get a sense of belonging and that they're of value. It builds self-esteem."

The youthful employees start out on equal footing. The youths board in groups of about 18, with a home leader and a team leader (the team leader is in charge at work). They do everything together, including planning leisure activities. The leaders are at least 21 and have proven track records as decent, law-abiding men, Olsen said. Most of them are returned missionaries for the LDS Church. But religion is never an issue, although participants are required to attend a Sunday church service of their choice.

"There are a lot of reasons people join up," Olsen said. "Some have problems with their families and need to get away for a bit. Some need help with school. And a lot of the kids have had no male role model and need one. It's also an opportunity to travel. More and more of our young people have never gone anywhere. But the key is work. It's not to get a suntan. The work is meaningful and very physical."

In 17 weeks, a youth will pick a million pineapples, for instance.

One-fourth of participants come back for more than one session. More return for schooling than for the money, according to Olsen. The program participates in an individual, self-paced learning program. Tutors, who are under the direction of certified teachers, work with the students. The tutors don't grade assignments; that's done by an individual who will "probably never even meet the students but will grade him on his own merits." Students earn credits through the Hawaii Department of Education.

Because of the supervised nature of the program and the rules and regulations, Olsen said people tend to view it as drudgery. "It's not that way at all. It's a great deal of fun. Every six or seven weeks, the youths travel to different islands. Everyone plans a holiday every single week. We have sports days and parties - all sorts of things.

"Few of the boys love the work. I don't know any teenagers who are like that. But after a while, they take a great deal of pride in it. And they get special rewards along the way."

The next work group will leave in February. Anyone interested in learning more about the program can call Olsen at 943-1752.