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A Close- Up Look At People Who Matter : Club Is a Safe Place With a Friendly Face

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Jim Ventress teases the kids walking into the Santa Clarita Valley Boys & Girls Club after the Thanksgiving holiday.

“You got some turkey for me?” he asks. The youngsters shake their heads and smile.

“No?” Ventress asks. “No? Well, tomorrow. OK? OK?”

Kids often smile when they see Ventress, the club’s executive director. “The youth just flock around him,” said Rick Putnam, Santa Clarita’s director of Parks, Recreation and Community Services.

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Ventress enjoys the long hours he spends with the kids at the Boys & Girls Club, playing basketball, goofing off, teasing them in his friendly way.

“You’ve got to know when to kid them so when you’re serious you’ll have their attention and respect,” said Ventress, whom Putnam called a “Pied Piper” of the community.

“Maybe I have within myself the ability to uncork the little boy that is still in me,” said Ventress, who has been in Boys & Girls Club organization for 18 years. “I think the kids see that.”

Ventress was attending a Catholic high school in 1965 when his father’s butcher shop was destroyed in the Watts riots. His father had to find other work, and Ventress took a job at the Salesian Boys Club of Los Angeles to help pay his high school tuition for two years.

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“As I look back, those were critical years for me,” Ventress said. Working and playing at the club as a 10th- and 11th-grader kept him off the streets and out of trouble, he said.

Later, as a student at Cal State Los Angeles, Ventress stopped by to visit the priest who ran the club. “Two weeks later, he had me working there,” Ventress said. He decided to stay for a year to repay the club for its help.

Nearly two decades later, Ventress is still repaying. He stays, he said, “because I’ve seen it work.”

He ran the Salesian club in East Los Angeles for five years before taking his current job in Santa Clarita in 1985. He stays in contact with friends there, he said, and often takes his Santa Clarita kids--especially the wanna-be gang members and taggers--to East L.A. to show them the poverty and broken lives.

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Putnam said he has seen Ventress turn kids’ lives around by getting them involved in the Boys & Girls Club program.

“But he is also very adept at mobilizing the adults in the community to give their support,” Putnam said.

“He does his arm-twisting in a very nice way,” said Jo Anne Darcy, mayor of Santa Clarita.

That persuasion has helped Ventress and the club get the support to build the $1.8-million central facility that opened in Newhall in 1992. Next, Ventress sees himself expanding programs in the club’s satellite facilities, in Canyon Country, Val Verde and Saugus.

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Ventress has a simple approach when he asks for aid. He tells prospective donors: This is a group that offers boys and girls ages 7 to 17 someplace better to be than on the streets, getting into drugs and crime.

The Boys & Girls Club auction, held each June, is the biggest charitable event in the Santa Clarita Valley. The event raised $155,000 this year and is expected to take in $165,000 next year. The amount raised is enough to pay 35% to 40% of the club’s operating budget, said Director of Development Judy Belue.

Personal Best is a weekly profile of an ordinary person who does extraordinary things. Please send suggestions on prospective candidates to Personal Best, Los Angeles Times, 20000 Prairie St, Chatsworth 91311 Or fax it to (818) 772-3338 .


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