This story was excerpted from an article that was originally published on May 5, 2011.
On a Thursday in the hills north of Salinas, Dave Campos is teaching ex-gangsters to fish.
“Here, hold your fingers like this,” says Campos, a probation officer and former commercial fisherman, as he guides his students through casting a line. It takes a few tries, but soon they’re all in sync, reaching their poles back behind them and casting their lines in artful arcs over the water and into the pond.
For several minutes, the only audible sounds are the wind whispering through the trees and the light splash of the fishing lines as they hit the water.
“It’s so peaceful here,” says 17-year-old Maria Fernandez, her leather jacket and dark eyeliner a stark contrast to her country surroundings. “It makes me forget about everything else.”
That’s the idea, Campos says.
“We get these kids” – at-risk youth, many trying to escape from the grip of gang life – “out of their home environment, and just let them be kids again. That’s the beauty of Rancho Cielo.”
The 100-acre “sky ranch,” as its name translates from Spanish, is a school and social services center for underserved youth in Monterey County. Established as a nonprofit in 2000, Rancho Cielo serves 100 teens and young adults per year through programs jointly run by the county education, probation and behavioral health departments, as well as a number of other social service agencies.
If the students – who are driven to campus by a fleet of vans that pick them up from their neighborhoods – remain drug-free, comply with probation-mandated counseling requirements and successfully complete their coursework, they’ll leave Rancho Cielo with a high school diploma and vocational training to help them enter the workforce – and exit the cycle of violence and poverty. To date, nearly 150 youth have “graduated” from Rancho Cielo, and many stay in touch with program staff, giving them sunny updates on their work and family life.
“Before we opened this, everyone said, ‘This is impossible,’” says Judge John Phillips, Rancho Cielo’s founder and driving force. A longtime Superior Court judge and former Monterey County district attorney, Phillips spent decades sending wayward youth to prison before deciding to create an alternative to incarceration.
“When I first was saying, ‘We’ve gotta reach these kids before they get to prison,’ people weren’t that interested,” Phillips recalls. “But I think everyone finally realized that we’ve been building all these prisons and keeping people locked up as long as we can, but people aren’t feeling any safer, and kids are still getting shot in the streets because we’re not addressing the problems before they get locked up.”
Rancho Cielo has an operating budget of about $1.2 million, with funding not only from individual board members but from numerous foundations, too. “All of the big ones have put money in,” says Susie Brusa, Rancho’s executive director, including the Packard Foundation and the Community Foundation of Monterey County among them. Local Rotary groups, the United Way and other local organizations that give anywhere from $500 to $15,000 annually to keep the operation running.
The county government programs represented on Rancho’s campus – behavioral health, probation and education – also contribute to the funding, while state and federal money come with strings attached; a $1.1 million, multi-year YouthBuild grant recently awarded to Rancho by the U.S. Department of Labor will teach job skills as students work on helping build affordable housing in the county.