Kids Catch a Break
A public-private partnership drives Silver Star program for at-risk youth.
Thursday, January 5, 2006
831[TALES FROM THE AREA CODE]
Rancho Cielo is a 100-acre spread with a wooden entrance sign on the its perimeter—just like you might see in a Western movie. In 2004, the Silver Star Youth Program moved to Rancho Cielo from Natividad Hospital. Here, Silver Star offers a chance for at-risk kids, referred by the courts, schools and parents, to gain the skills, self-esteem and confidence they need to contribute to their community.
Rancho Cielo housed a boys ranch during the ‘80s, but sat vacant for 22 years before retired Superior Court Judge John Phillips, local builder Don Chapin, and John Anderson of Woodman Development got together and began its rehabilitation.
Tony Finnegan, a deputy probation officer who helps transition the kids out of Silver Star, says that the program formed after Judge Phillips kept seeing juvenile offenders entering into the adult criminal arena. Following Judge Phillips’ vision, others got involved.
Leticia Cisneros, who handles day-to-day operations, says the program is driven by concern for the kids’ well-being. “It’s a lot of people with a lot of passion making this happen,” she says.
The program draws resources from public as well as private agencies, including the county probation department, the Monterey County Office of Education, Turning Point, and the Victim Offender Reconciliation Program.
The classrooms where the kids now earn high school and college credits were once the dorms at the boys ranch. The reception area was once a prison-like guard tower—hard to imagine now, since it’s an inviting, open space, complete with pictures of kids fishing at one of the ranch’s two ponds, tending to the horses used in the Freedom Reins Horse Program, gardening, lifting weights, and playing basketball in the gym.
Remodeling at the ranch continues.
“The doors are just a week old,” Cisheros says. “And we put on a new roof. Next we will renovate the floors.” The floors, with small holes and cracks, indeed appear to need some attention.
The kitchen is also under construction. Directed by Bert Cutino of the Sardine Factory, it’s being renovated to house a culinary program. They also hope to add a farm so kids can learn to grow and market their own crops.
Silver Star provides the transportation for the kids—who come from as far as King City—and feeds them all breakfast before their classes begin at 8:30am.
“We have resource education specialists for our students with special education needs, and drug and alcohol counseling. They are given drug tests two or three times a week,” Finnegan says, “There are only 18 to 20 students per class, so these kids get a lot of one-on-one attention. It’s very supportive, structured and supervised.”
After morning classes, the students break for lunch and then spend the rest of their eight-hour day in vocational training, counseling or other court-ordered programs.
“Like most jobs, we want to expose them to the eight-hour workday routine,” Finnegan says. “We also help them create résumés, do mock interviews, learn how to dress for success and do job shadowing. We even teach them how to tie ties.”
Eight out of the nine current graduates will receive their high school diploma. Others transition out into the military or workforce. Students like Edgar will go on to college.
Edgar is a reserved, polite young man who was put on probation last August and court-ordered to attend the Silver Star program. He earned his remaining high school credits at the ranch.
“I got job experience through [partner agency] Turning Point, doing maintenance and painting,” he says. “Now I’m enrolling at Hartnell for Business Administration. It’s a lot of fun, we go on a lot of field trips, like the Tech Museum in San Jose. It keeps you on track.”
The field trips, which supplement in-class education, offer opportunities for some students who otherwise might never get out of their communities.
“Two of our students from Salinas had never seen the ocean,” Finnegan says. “So we took them to Monterey. It’s about broadening their horizons and giving them opportunities they might not otherwise have.”
They also get exposed to music through the music program.
“One kid got into music and it totally turned him around,” says Joe Grammatico, manager of probation services.
“When people come out here they say, ‘This is nice—I didn’t know it was here,’” Finnegan says. “They are surprised at how good and polite the kids are. These kids have just made poor choices leading to a series of events that gets them into trouble.”