Ben was 25 feet off the ground, clinging desperately to the smooth granite rock face. With one foot resting on an inch-wide ledge, his rope and harness were his lifeline.
"Hey, dude, don't forget I'm up here," he shouted to his rope handlers. "Don't let me drop," he said, his voice quavering.
"Hey, dude, when you're up there, you've gotta trust us," one of his peers replied.
Meanwhile, Tom walked hesitantly over to the second rope, took a deep breath, then slowly, methodically began his ascent up the cliff. Keeping his eyes glued ahead of him, he searched tentatively with his boots for the next foothold. "I can't look down. I'm too scared," he said quietly.
From the ground the group cheered him on. "You can do it, dude. Go for it," they encouraged. When he finally reached the crest, he was beaming.
Ben and Tom were part of a group of eight delinquent boys backpacking through the Joshua Tree National Monument wilderness. They were miles from the nearest road and three hours from the comforts and safety of Los Angeles.
As participants in a 17-day wilderness program called Rancho Outdoor Challenge, they were learning to navigate through the desert, rappel off 1,600-foot-high cliffs, climb rocks, cook their own meals and make their own decisions.
For this outing they had backpacks weighing up to 70 pounds each, water and food, and two trained instructors. What they hadn't had was a shower in the last five days.
The outdoor challenge program is run by Rancho San Antonio--a live-in juvenile detention center in Chatsworth that has educated, counseled and worked with troubled Southland teen-age boys for 53 years. Now operated by the Brothers of the Holy Cross, a Catholic order, Rancho is a private facility contracted by the county to care for juvenile delinquents.
"ROC is probably the first time in a long while that a lot of these guys feel good about themselves," said Doug Mahon, the ruddy-faced program director who believes that this sort of hands-on survival training works wonders when it comes to encouraging a sense of self-esteem. "It's probably the first time they haven't quit on themselves."
Joel Tubbs, admissions director for the 118-bed facility, said the wilderness program is a cram course in success. "ROC is tough, difficult and challenging for these boys, but they can do it," he said. "It's almost a coerced success experience."
As the boys sat in a circle cross-legged in the desert their stories began to unfold--stories that often centered around alcoholic parents or those who disappeared or disowned them. Chris said he was 9 when his mother was diagnosed as having cancer. Unable to cope with the pressure of her illness, his father abandoned the family, leaving a terrified Chris to take care of his dying mother.
They told of physical, emotional and sexual abuse, of being shuttled from one foster home to another and of failing at even typical adolescent hurdles such as boy-girl relationships or overcoming bad grades. Another common denominator emerged: drugs and alcohol used mostly, the boys said, to escape their problems.
For many, the drugs and alcohol led to repeated trouble with the law. Most have spent a lot of time in front of judges and in other court-ordered programs. Often, by the time they end up at Rancho they've been in the juvenile system so long they are adept at skating through it.
Unlike other programs, however, the outdoor challenge program requires the boys to do more than simply serve time. It pushes them and pushes them hard. Mahon said that because the wilderness is alien to these city kids, it breaks through their defenses. "We purposefully make their lives difficult--hiking them in the desert with heavy packs until all they want to do is throw their packs down. We push their frustration levels." With no place to hide, he continued, the youngsters are forced to confront their own behavior.
"Under pressure, personality shortcoming and problems come out," Tubbs explained. "Those things would never show up in a more relaxed environment like Rancho because we'd never push them that hard."
It is day five and the boys are tired, sore and uncomfortable. Several are grumbling about wanting to go home. "What you do in reality, the real world, is the same thing you do out here," said Tubbs, who is visiting the campsite to see how the boys are progressing. "You give up. You handle your problems so far, then give up. In life you have to grind away at things. Out here you do too."
"How many of you thought it was going to be a camping trip," roasting marshmallows and going over to the girls' bunks?" he asked.
A few of the teen-agers looked at each other sheepishly.
Rancho Outdoor Challenge was conceived of nearly nine years ago when Doug Mahon was a dorm counselor at Rancho San Antonio. Using $500 from the Los Angeles Times Summer Camp Fund, Mahon--a longtime backpacker and rock climber--and 10 boys from Rancho Antonio signed up for a new wilderness program run by the Hollywood Boys Club.
"Right away we saw that it worked," Mahon recalled. "It got their attention. It made them feel good about themselves."
In addition, there were lasting results, he said. Even three months after completing the program, the teen-agers did better on self-esteem tests.
The staff at Rancho San Antonio quickly realized it could do the program a lot cheaper on its own and began operating it in-house in 1978 with Mahon at the helm. Since then he has gone out on almost all of the 120 or so trips ROC has run.
ROC doesn't have a separate budget, Mahon said. "We've hustled all our own equipment," he said. "We did printing for local camping outfitters (Rancho San Antonio has a print shop that the boys use for vocational training) and traded them for our packs and other equipment."
Over the years, ROC has become a crucial part of Rancho's program, one that most of the boys go through at some point during their stay.
The boys who complete ROC have a renewed energy to complete both the program and school, said Ron Feinberg, a licensed clinical social worker at Rancho San Antonio. But, he said, the chief value of the wilderness program is that it gives the boys a "chance to sort things out--learn ways to deal with their problems. They confront their fears and learn the mechanics to overcome them. The mode of behavior they learned to use on the streets (i.e., hostility, passivity), doesn't work in the wilderness," he said.
Just how much difference can one 17-day program make?
It's a question of how success is defined, Mahon said. Success for these boys may not mean getting married, buying a house and landing a good job. Just keeping their nose clean day today may be enough, he said.
Level of Success Differs
The level of success, too, will vary from boy to boy. "For one kid, the best he can do is not get kicked out of the program," Mahon continued. "For another kid, the best he can do is get over his fear of heights, start becoming communicative and confrontive in group (therapy). It's a real individual thing.
"Most of the kids have had tough breaks, but now we have to say 'OK, what are you going to do about it?' They've spent their lives shifting blame and responsibility to others."
One of the objects of the wilderness program, Mahon said, is to shift the responsibility back to the boys by pointing out the natural consequences of their choices.
"If they have to get to a certain point by nightfall and they don't make it, they're setting up camp in the dark. If they haven't set their tarp up, they get wet if it rains," Mahon said.
It wasn't until they ran out of water on a recent expedition, said Joseph and Ron, both 16, that they took responsibility for themselves.
Because they hadn't rationed their water, by Friday afternoon it was gone--16 hours shy of being refilled. (Mahon and his co-instructor had appraised the situation and decided the boys would be OK without the water.) "We couldn't cook, but after that we learned to save our water," Joseph said with a grin.
'Doing Better in School'
The wilderness program was the push that both say they needed to start making changes in their lives. "I'm doing much better in school, now," Ron said. "I'm not doing any more drugs or alcohol."
Added Joseph: "I'm getting A's and Bs in school now. I had been getting Cs and Ds before."
But the ROC program is not a panacea, Mahon is quick to point out. "I don't think you can put damaged kids in the woods for four weeks and expect them to come out choirboys. Outdoor programs are powerful so long as they are part of an overall treatment program."
As their wilderness program came to a close, the eight boys once again sat in a circle talking about the last 17 days. At their final group dinner, the talk revolved around trusting others as well as themselves for the first time. Of learning to be self-sufficient, independent and disciplined. Of pushing themselves beyond their self-imposed limits and completing a job well done.
They chattered about Rancho San Antonio's softball league, getting back to school and their dorm assignments where they will mix with the rest of the facility's population.
Tubbs surveyed the group and smiled. "You're a different group of boys than when we first met you. Some of you went from very depressed blobs to what you are now--standing up straight and looking us in the eye."