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Camp Helps Troubled Boys Change Their Attitudes and Lives

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Deep in the Sequoia National Forest stood a collection of unlikely campers.

The boys, most no older than 14, wore basketball sneakers, baggy shorts, faded T-shirts and unmistakable chips on their slender shoulders.

There was 12-year-old Joshua of Oxnard, who smiles politely at adults but had his first fistfight only a few hours after arriving at camp.

His brother Jack, 14, was willing to give the forest thing a try. Still, he doubted it would help fill the emptiness left by the mother who abandoned them, a father who died in a drunk-driving accident, and an older brother who died of a drug overdose only a couple weeks before.

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Elijah, 14, of Port Hueneme knew he’d be asked to talk about his mother, who prostituted herself to support her son and her drug habit, and he wanted no part of it.

And Dylan, a chubby boy with a resigned slouch, who felt more comfortable with a book than a peer. Not even a day had gone by before the others started bullying him.

“I don’t know,” said Dylan, 13, of Ventura, eyes on the ground. “I’d like to make a few friends. It could happen, I guess.”

Dylan, Elijah, Jack and Joshua. These were the boys of Pyles Boys Camp.

City kids, 69 in all, they were plucked from the streets of Ventura County’s most impoverished and toughest neighborhoods to attend a camp that dared make a bold promise: Give us two weeks and we’ll change your lives.

Most of the boys came from homes without fathers. Their mothers, forced to be the breadwinners, worked so much they were rarely home--or simply didn’t care to be around.

“The absent fathers of America,” said Pyles Camp Director Roman “Bravo” Gutierrez. “Their sons are here.”

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The camp was founded in 1949 by Huntington Beach philanthropist Robert M. Pyles, who envisioned an oasis for underprivileged teenage boys who might make something of their lives if they had a helping hand. Pyles, who rose from an impoverished background in Kern County to become a successful independent oil man, died in 1969, and his ashes were sprinkled over the camp.

Similar to the Boys Towns made famous in Depression-era movies, campers receive discipline, spiritual guidance, year-round counseling and scholarship opportunities.

Those who do well are invited back for second- and third-year camping programs. Others can continue on as volunteer workers or camp counselors.

So far, more than 22,000 boys from six Southern California counties have passed through the camp, located east of Porterville among a towering grove of trees and a short hike to clear mountain streams.

But as the camp marks its 50th anniversary, it faces a problem every bit as challenging as the boys it tries to rescue. The oil industry, which has been the camp’s principal benefactor, has hit rocky times, camp officials say. Now, Pyles representatives are struggling to find outside donors to help cover their $600,000 annual budget.

For three of the last five years, the camp has fallen as much as $40,000 short. A $400,000 reserve has kept it afloat so far, said Pyles Executive Director Paul Leitzell, 44, a former Ventura resident and camp alumnus.

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“But we can’t keep relying on that,” Leitzell said.

“It’s getting tough,” said Gutierrez, himself a 1973 camper. “If people could only see what a difference a little attention can make in a child’s life.”

Take Eddie Ramos. When he arrived at Pyles he was a 14-year-old know-it-all with two brothers in prison. He was already flirting with membership in the toughest gang in East L.A. when a school counselor referred him.

Like every new camper, Ramos rolled his eyes as he listened to the camp’s list of core values: personal responsibility, dependability, honesty, initiative.

“I thought it was all fake,” said Ramos, now 25. “Just stupid stuff. On the first day I picked a fight. That was just my attitude.”

But after 14 days of discipline, counseling and attention, a change began.

“I started to see my future would be spent inside a prison, or inside a coffin,” Ramos said. “I started listening to what they were saying.”

On scholarship from Pyles, Ramos graduated from Humboldt State University in May. Meanwhile, 12 friends from the old neighborhood are dead, killed in gang wars, said Ramos, now the camp’s assistant director.

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“He becomes the inspiration,” Gutierrez said. “All the excuses are eliminated when the kids talk to him. He says, ‘Look, I come from a family surrounded by gangs and drugs, too. But you don’t have to be a victim.’ The mind is fertile, and eventually that message will take hold.”

When Joshua and the others arrived, they brought some of the same emotional baggage, and the same arrogance. Camp counselors, most of them former campers themselves, delivered the message early on: Baggy shorts had to be pulled up, shirts tucked in, baseball caps turned forward. Here, beds are made, hands are washed before each meal, and volunteering for KP duty is expected.

By the second day, Joshua was already fed up with all the rules. He claimed to understand what they were doing. “They’re just trying to show us how to be men,” he said. But it was just part of his pose.

He was the first to flaunt the rules. Told to stand in a single-file line, he sat down; told to be quiet, he sang a song; and he frequently complained about the food.

There was little the counselors hadn’t seen. They knew Joshua has grown up learning a different set of rules--like knowing which clothing would get you beaten up because it was the symbol of a rival gang.

“My friend Bruce, he wore a Cowboy jersey and got hurt,” Joshua said. “Now his name is Crazy Legs. He’s a gang member.”

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Joshua was smart, an articulate kid, quick with a smile but full of anger.

Often he focused it on Dylan. The two were cabin mates but had little else in common.

The teasing came to a head one night early on. Joshua led boys hurling a relentless stream of insults at Dylan. His voice sounded like a girl’s, they said. His hair was ugly. He was too fat.

For Dylan, this was nothing new.

“I’m kind of used to it, actually,” he said. “I don’t work so well with people, I guess. It’s the way I’m used to being treated.”

What he was not used to was someone like Joseph, a 13-year-old cabin mate who stood over Joshua by a good 3 to 4 inches. He ordered Joshua to stop, prompting the younger boy to charge him. By the time a camp counselor stepped in, a full brawl had ensued.

“It just bugs me how nobody likes Dylan,” said Joseph, a self-described smart-aleck with a sheriff’s deputy uncle who thought the camp would do him some good. “They’ve made him an outcast.”

Dylan may have had an ally, but the lessons were just starting for everyone. After a few days of adjusting to camp life, of horseback riding, archery and swimming, the real tests began.

Midway through week one, the campers rose early, hoisted backpacks and began a five-day hike into the woods.

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“The trip is meant to be a metaphor for life,” Gutierrez said. “Some parts are hard to get through. There are peaks and there are valleys. A lot of the boys want to quit, but we encourage them to keep going. Then we talk about the hard work it took to make it and how good that feeling of accomplishment feels.”

The challenge was Jerky Mountain. It was a rigorous climb to the mountain’s peak. Among the first group struggling to the summit were nine teenagers from counselor Eleazar Hernandez’s cabin, including Joshua and Dylan.

Not too far up the mountain, Joshua, sweaty and breathless, sat down defiantly and refused to budge. He wanted to go home, he said. What’s the point? he demanded.

“Everybody out there hates us anyway,” he vented.

Fellow campers rallied around him, pleading with him to go farther. Among his biggest supporters was, surprisingly, Dylan.

Himself panting from the strenuous journey, Dylan patiently pleaded, “We can do this, I know it.”

Joshua stood, took several more steps, then stopped again. In a rage, he flung his backpack, spilling the clothes, food and supplies on the ground. He demanded to go home.

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“I’m a city boy,” he screamed at Hernandez, 22. “I’m not used to this stuff.”

It was time for tough love, Hernandez decided. Pulling Joshua aside, he threw an arm around him and began to talk.

“Sooner or later, this attitude will get you in one of two places: underground or in jail.”

Then the tears began.

Joshua sobbed uncontrollably and spoke of the brother who died two weeks before. He felt alone, he sobbed. He finally calmed down and agreed that he still had his other brother, 14-year-old Jack, to look after him.

“I’ll try harder,” Joshua promised. “I’ll try my best.”

Four hours later, the group conquered Jerky Mountain.

“That felt awesome,” Joshua said. How did he do it? “Just think positive, not negative.”

Along the journey, counselor Jaime Cruz, 27, was busy putting out fires erupting in his own group, which included Jack and Elijah.

Jack and Elijah spent a lot of time together, but handled the camp’s lessons very differently.

Jack became a helper, volunteering for chores and offering on more than one occasion to give a big-brother pep talk to his more rambunctious little brother, Joshua. His counselor quickly saw Jack as a leader, someone who might return to the camp one day as a counselor.

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Elijah had a bumpier road. He argued about chores. He slugged a fellow camper for no reason.

And one morning, when it was discovered a cabin mate wet his bed during the night, Elijah teased him so ruthlessly the boy was reduced to tears.

“You know, you had a chance to support someone in there, and instead you made him cry. You know, you made fun of him, but he never made fun of where you come from,” Cruz said later, referring to the Port Hueneme motel where he lived with his mother.

The words clicked. Elijah struggled to hold back the tears welling in his eyes. The teasing ceased.

“These kids, they act tough, but they are just kids starving for attention,” Cruz said.

“They want hugs, they want to be tucked in at night, they want me to sit in their cabins until they fall asleep. They’re hungry for that.”

Camp Alumni Find Success

Camp counselors say that, of course, there is no guarantee the lessons will stay with the young campers when they return home. But more often than not, Gutierrez said, the trip makes a difference. How else, he asked, can you explain the numerous camp alumni who have gone on to college? Four are currently in doctorate programs.

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“And these are kids who were never supposed to finish the eighth grade,” he said. “It’s our job to see that spark of potential in these kids and to ignite it. That is what we do.”

At least for now. With a budget shortage hanging over them, camp officials are searching for new and creative ways to raise money. A Sponsor a Boy program invites businesses and individuals to cover the expenses of one summer at camp and a year of follow-up counseling. The cost: $1,000.

“It’s time for us to start turning to people and let them know, ‘Hey, we’ve been here for years and we’ve made an impact in your community,” Gutierrez said. “We are a good place to put your dollars.”

Emotions ran high on the last day. The boys passed the time with games: dodge ball, tug of war, relay races.

Not everyone had fully accepted the camp’s motto: We teach boys how to be men. There had been a few scuffles. Some still needed reminding to tuck in their shirts before dinner.

But most had made progress.

“I used to tease Dylan a lot,” Joshua said, while sitting on a bench and resting after a game of tug of war. “But I don’t anymore. I used to think it was no big deal. I just thought everyone was trying to run over me and stuff, so I ended up pushing some people. I learned I have problems and I was taking it out on other people. I don’t want to do that anymore.”

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Dylan saw the change in Joshua, too. And in himself.

“He’s certainly nicer to me,” he said. “And I’m trying. If I have a problem with people, I can solve them. I did over here, didn’t I?”

At the final campfire, everyone fell silent.

Against the crackle and pop of the roaring blaze, each boy took a turn in the center of a pine cone circle. One by one, each shared what the camp meant to him.

“I learned not everyone is against you,” said 13-year-old Armando, of Ventura. “I learned you don’t have to go through everything alone.”

“I learned I do have family,” Elijah said when it was his turn to speak. “Not by blood, but I have family. I have family here.”

As the ceremony drew to a close, the group gathered in a friendship circle. Seeing Dylan standing on the edge, Joseph reached out and yanked him into the circle with an arm around the neck.

To contact Pyles Boys Camp, call (661) 294-1394 or write 27211 Henry Mayo Drive, Valencia, CA 91355.

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