St. Anne Institute in Albany, a nationally-recognized residential and community-based treatment center and school for troubled teenage girls, received a grant for $7,892 last month to build up its car wash service.

The service debuted in the fall as the newest offering of its work experience program for students. The gift from First Niagara Bank will fund salaries, uniforms, a pressure washer and other supplies, plus the construction of a carport and shed.

"We were just overjoyed," said Emily Sowek, a history teacher and the coordinator of the work experience program. "We can't wait to spend the money. [The girls] are so excited to get uniforms."

The work experience program currently employs about 15 first-time job-holders who provide preschool assistance, grounds maintenance, kitchen help and more.

Crusty cars
The car wash idea hit Ms. Sowek in September as she pondered the state of the agency's fleet of about seven vehicles: "Every time you took a ride in an agency vehicle, quite frankly, you were skeeved out," she said with a laugh.

She enlisted a group of girls to scrub them clean once a week. "Within the first week, people were raving about it," she said.

Many of the agency's 300 employees were making appointments to have their own cars washed and referring their families to the service. That evolved into three to four student employees washing and detailing cars four afternoons a week. They charged $10.

"These kids do a really great job," Ms. Sowek said. "They're meticulous."

The program started out with a vacuum, hoses and sprayers, plus interior cleaning supplies. The grant will help the program continue in the colder months and may even create more positions in the work experience program.

More than 800 clients, mostly girls ages 12 to 18, benefit from St. Anne Institute's services, which include therapeutic, vocational, recreational and spiritual programs for residents; co-ed special education preschool and daycare services; and community-based services. The girls often come from low socioeconomic backgrounds and have experienced trauma.

Pleasure in work
Ms. Sowek said the work-study program "is kind of giving them training wheels" in terms of a work ethic.

"It lets them have a little independence," she said: for instance, a student worker might be able to skip a residence meal to buy a slice of pizza.

"There's a monotony about being in placement," Ms. Sowek noted. Work-study "gives them an opportunity to view work as something pleasurable. They'll grow into someone who values work."

The students can also save some money; one participant is leaving the school this week with $750 in her account.

Ms. Sowek enjoys watching girls who struggle in school shine in a work environment.

"It's kind of like being Santa," she said. "It's really awesome."

Tips for the car wash workers go back into the program's account. Ms. Sowek takes employees out to dinner once a month, usually tying in social studies lessons at ethnic restaurants.

The group had originally dubbed the car-wash service "Leave All the Details to Us," but Ms. Sowek said they're rethinking it: "That might be a little much for a T-shirt."