Thursday, May 5, 2011
On a Thursday in the hills north of Salinas, Dave Campos is teaching ex-gangsters to fish.
“Here, hold your fingers like this,” says Campos, a probation officer and former commercial fisherman, as he guides his students through casting a line. It takes a few tries, but soon they’re all in sync, reaching their poles back behind them and casting their lines in artful arcs over the water and into the pond.
For several minutes, the only audible sounds are the wind whispering through the trees and the light splash of the fishing lines as they hit the water.
“It’s so peaceful here,” says 17-year-old Maria Fernandez, her leather jacket and dark eyeliner a stark contrast to her country surroundings. “It makes me forget about everything else.”
That’s the idea, Campos says.
“We get these kids” – at-risk youth, many trying to escape from the grip of gang life – “out of their home environment, and just let them be kids again. That’s the beauty of Rancho Cielo.”
The 100-acre “sky ranch,” as its name translates from Spanish, is a school and social services center for underserved youth in Monterey County. Established as a nonprofit in 2000, Rancho Cielo serves 100 teens and young adults per year through programs jointly run by the county education, probation and behavioral health departments, as well as a number of other social service agencies.
If the students – who are driven to campus by a fleet of vans that pick them up from their neighborhoods – remain drug-free, comply with probation-mandated counseling requirements and successfully complete their coursework, they’ll leave Rancho Cielo with a high school diploma and vocational training to help them enter the workforce – and exit the cycle of violence and poverty. To date, nearly 150 youth have “graduated” from Rancho Cielo, and many stay in touch with program staff, giving them sunny updates on their work and family life.
“Before we opened this, everyone said, ‘This is impossible,’” says Judge John Phillips, Rancho Cielo’s founder and driving force. A longtime Superior Court judge and former Monterey County district attorney, Phillips spent decades sending wayward youth to prison before deciding to create an alternative to incarceration for the county’s troubled kids.
“When I first was saying, ‘We’ve gotta reach these kids before they get to prison,’ people weren’t that interested,” Phillips recalls. “But I think everyone finally realized that we’ve been building all these prisons and keeping people locked up as long as we can, but people aren’t feeling any safer, and kids are still getting shot in the streets because we’re not addressing the problems before they get locked up.”
Rancho Cielo has an operating budget of about $1.2 million, with funding not only from individual board members (including Phillips) but from numerous foundations, too. “All of the big ones have put money in,” says Susie Brusa, Rancho’s executive director, including the Monterey Peninsula Foundation, the Packard Foundation and the Community Foundation of Monterey County among them. Local Rotary groups, the United Way and the Hyatt Foundation are among the many other local organizations that give anywhere from $500 to $15,000 per year to keep the operation running.
The county government programs represented on Rancho’s campus – behavioral health, probation and education – also contribute to the funding, while state and federal money come with strings attached; a $1.1 million, multi-year YouthBuild grant recently awarded to Rancho by the U.S. Department of Labor will teach job skills as students work on helping build affordable housing in the county.
Rancho Cielo’s integrated approach to educating and enriching the lives of former gang members and other at-risk youth is yielding significant success. One year after leaving the program, Rancho Cielo graduates have a 73 percent reduction in recidivism; they’re staying out of trouble even as they re-enter the same neighborhoods where their lives of crime began.
“When they come in, they’re scared, angry, upset,” Phillips says. “They don’t have any hope for the future. But you see a difference in them when they’ve been here three or four months. They really come alive.”
In three distinct programs – Rancho Cielo Youth Corps, Silver Star Youth Program, and the recently launched Drummond Culinary Academy – participants referred to Rancho through probation or the school system learn a wide variety of skills ranging from the more conventionally academic, like writing and math, to the vocational, such as woodworking and kitchen arts.
The latter are on display at the new Culinary Arts Center, where a small group of students, clad in starched white uniforms and chef hats, are chopping vegetables and filleting salmon in an industry-standard kitchen for an evening event.
Presiding over the cooks-in-training is Chef Marc Whisenant, a kitchen veteran with a passion for culinary education. He says he measures his program’s success by more than memorable meals.
“I’m seeing people showing up every day who want to be here,” Whisenant says. “The questions they ask – ‘How can I make this better?’ ‘Why do we do it this way?’ – show me they’re engaged.”
Whisenant reflects fondly on numerous successful events, but acknowledges that it’s not always smooth sailing.
“We had one event where our vegetables were inedible,” Whisenant recalls. “We couldn’t put them out, and had to explain that to our guests.” Despite the obvious embarrassment of a dish gone awry, Whisenant says that experience served as preparation for life in the real world beyond Rancho Cielo’s walls.
“After every event, we talk about what went wrong, what went right, and would this be acceptable in the real world?” Whisenant says. “I can’t tell these guys they’re perfect, because they’re not… but I tell them that it’s not the end of the world, it’s just part of the business, and this is part of learning.”
During a break from meal prep, Felicia Castro, 21, and Nicole Perez, 17, reflected on Rancho and their prior entanglements with gangs.
“I love it up here,” says Perez, who talks of candying carrots in the kitchen at Rancho and for her family at home. “But outside it’s still crazy.”
“We used to live on the east side [of Salinas], and all our friends were in gangs,” Castro adds. “There were all these shootings… “
“… and I had three of my friends pass away,” Perez interjects.
Even though they now live in a North Salinas neighborhood, both Castro and Perez say they’re still surrounded by gang activity, and even see members of friends’ rival gangs at Rancho Cielo.
“It’s difficult, sometimes, to see someone here who you don’t like outside of here,” says Perez. “But sometimes you become friends with them, too. I’ve made friends here I’d never expected to.”
She’s also made great strides in confidence.
“They make me feel like I have something to look forward to here,” says Perez, who, along with Castro, hopes to get a job in a restaurant when she graduates later this month.
“Now, I think, I might get somewhere, be somebody,” Castro says.
“The Judge,” as Phillips is known around campus, has big plans for Rancho Cielo, including a multi-million-dollar agricultural job training center, a sports complex and transitional housing for students. But one of Rancho’s key funding sources – the state vehicle licensing fee, which funds part of the Silver Star program – may dry up in June, leaving Phillips in the lurch.
“If the fee sunsets, it’ll probably cut down considerably on that program,” Phillips says. That’s why he and his staff are embarking on their first-ever capital campaign, seeking greater buy-in from prominent private donors such as Cannery Row Developer Ted Balestreri, and beefing up their volunteer recruitment efforts. Their goal: at least $7 million.
It’s an uncertain time, but Phillips has faith.
“The community’s gotten behind us whenever we’ve needed it,” he says. “You encounter untapped resources all the time.”