CALABASAS : At-Risk Youths Learn the Ropes of Cooperation

“Jump at it and you’ll miss it,” warned outdoor instructor Sam Douglas to a young man standing atop a 60-foot pole trying to muster up the courage to leap onto a trapeze.

“Jump above it!” Douglas yelled.

The young man glanced down at another youth who was “belaying” him (holding onto the harness and ropes to keep him from falling). Then he jumped and grabbed the trapeze bar successfully.

The jumper and his partner are participants in the new Say Yes to Experience program at Camp David Gonzales, a probation facility for juvenile offenders in the Santa Monica Mountains near Calabasas. The camp is often the last chance before prison for many of the youths.


On the camp’s intensive course, the youths, often members of rival gangs, learn physical skills as well as trust and cooperation.

“There is no failure here,” said Douglas, coordinator of the ropes program, the first of its kind in California.

Douglas said he encourages the youths to participate in whatever capacity they feel comfortable.

“These are the kids who are usually sitting in the back of the class. . . . But we don’t want them to do that here,” he said.


Douglas gently coaxes reluctant youths at the camp to gear up and learn to rappel themselves from poles.

“It’s scary,” said Dwight, a member of the Crips. “It’s so high.” Dwight said the ropes course has enabled him to put his life in the hands of members of the rival Bloods.

Sixteen-year-old Mario said when he first got to Camp Gonzales, he would get into fights with other gang members. But during a trust- and teamwork-building exercise in which 20 people have to cross a log together from opposite directions without falling off, he found he had to grab the hands of a boy he had once fought to get to the other side.

“It was like making a peace treaty,” Mario said.