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A shout for help

Problem kids get tough love in a boot camp-like program run by local sheriff’s deputies

Posted: August 22, 2009 9:11 p.m.
Updated: August 23, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Volunteer U.S. Marine volunteers Martin Lopez, left, and Art Blanco run the VIDA group up Academy Hill at the military style boot camp in Santa Clarita on Saturday.

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About 30 kids in white T-shirts and green shorts stood up straight Saturday after a grueling uphill run and did their best not to attract the wrath of the shouting Marines who were inspecting them.

“Ears!” a volunteer drill sergeant screamed.

“Open, sir!” they answered.

It was failure to listen to parents in the first place that landed most of the 12- to 17-year-olds in the tough-love program run by sheriff’s deputies and volunteer Marines. The program, Vital Intervention and Directional Alternatives, targets kids who are experimenting with drugs or flirting with gangs and crime.

Eight sheriff’s departments run VIDA programs throughout the county. Parents, teachers, sheriff’s deputies and judges refer them to the local program, which the city of Santa Clarita funds.

It involves 16 weeks of boot camp-style training, along with family counseling.

“There’s no magic pill” for problem kids, said Los Angeles County sheriff’s Deputy Timothy Ferrone, who runs the local VIDA
program. “It’s not just a children problem, it’s a family problem.”

Taylor Navarro, 17, went through the program in 2007.

“I had like the most detentions ever, in the history of my junior high school, unfortunately,” the Golden Valley High School senior said.

His single mother didn’t know what to do, so she sent him to VIDA.

“I was just dreading every second of it,” he said — especially the yelling.

After it was all over, he noticed a change in himself.

“It just made me normal,” he said. “I definitely need a structured environment.”

But a couple of years later, he relapsed. He started doing drugs and broke into a school in Northern California and stole equipment, he said.

He joined the rest of the kids in their white t-shirts and green shorts at Sequoia Charter School, hoping to wipe his slate clean before adulthood so he could one day become a firefighter.

Saturday was what the instructors wryly refer to as “Black Saturday” — the first day of the program, when most of the kids still cling to their rebelliousness. Kids who have threatened their parents, disrupted their classrooms or are facing felony charges weren’t in
any hurry to start following the rules.

One moped, refusing to pick up his water bottle after tossing it onto a table. Ferrone shouted at him until he came back and picked it up.

Another tried to act tough and talked back. The Marine volunteers yelled in his face until he broke down into tears.

By about 9:30 a.m., a handful of teens were sitting and resting after a strenuous workout. Some were throwing up.

“The common thread is that the parents did not discipline or set boundaries with their children at a younger age,” said Ferrone, a 20-year veteran of the sheriff’s department who has been running the local VIDA program since 2006.

“In this program, kids thrive under structure and consequences.”



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