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This program helps troubled teens get back on track. And its based in Exeter

This program helps troubled teens get back on track. And its based in Exeter

There are things you see in life that give you hope for the next generation.

A young boy training a rescued dog for adoption.

Youngsters bonding on a ropes tower at camp.

Teens removing graffiti from road signs.

You might think these youths would be scouts or church groups out doing team building or community projects.

You would be right about the team building and community projects. But in this case, the boys and young men have all been convicted of felonies and have been court ordered to spend a minimum of nine months at Courage to Change, a nonprofit residential treatment ranch for boys 13-18 outside of Exeter. 

Most are members of gangs.

The ropes tower is one method of curbing the gang hatred.

“It’s a two-man team to get to the top,” said ranch co-founder Brian Gambini. “We have Bloods and Crips here. They hate each other just because they live on different sides of town. We put them together as a two-man team, adding that motivation of fear.”

To climb that big tower, they have no choice but to depend on each other. 

“They don’t become friends that day, but the dirty looks and mad dog stares go away. They start to communicate. Then they start hanging out together.” 

The dog training program began by chance.

“We had a cat that had a litter of kittens and then took off. The kittens had to be bottle fed,” said Gambini. “There was a huge reaction from the boys. Seeing these tough dudes cradling these itty bitty kittens, it was a natural way to teach compassion.”

Now the program goes to kill shelters and chooses non-aggressive dogs that are going to be put down. Each boy gets a dog to train for three months. Then the dogs are put up for adoption.

“The boy has to say goodbye to his dog, but then he gets a new one to train. You could call it a God thing. It has double benefits, for both the boys and the dogs.”

20-year anniversary

Courage for Change just celebrated its 20th anniversary. It was a natural outcome of Gambini’s childhood. For many years, Gambini’s mom, Susan Gambini, took in foster children.

“I grew up with 250-300 brothers and sisters,” Brian said. “My mom was doing it before I was born. You learn how to share and eat quickly.”

Brian knew from an early age he wanted to continue the family tradition.

“I was going to college and interning in a group home. I knew this is what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.”

He and his mom founded the ranch and gradually have added to it over the years. There are vocational education programs for welding and automotive along with a cadet program. There are basketball and Xbox tournaments, plus open swim time.

The boys catch up on school credits and have counselors and case managers. They learn anger management and conflict resolution. Some boys work in the vegetable garden and enjoy cooking and eating the food they’ve grown. Gambini’s next goal is to put in a culinary academy.

The young men who are already dads have “computer babies” that they have to care for around the clock.

 “We found out early that we have to keep them active. Being bored is not a good recipe,” said Gambini.

Community service

An important part of the program is community service. The court orders at least 20 hours, but the boys at the ranch usually put in 60 to 80 hours.

Dennis Sandoval, community service director, takes boys out to do graffiti removal, alley clean-up and yard work. They help at FoodLink and Habitat for Humanity.

“At FoodLink, they hand out food and get to see the people they’re helping,” said Sandoval. “We helped an elderly woman move to Florida. She was really appreciative.”

The program not only shows they’re here to help the community, but the boys learn safety skills and how to work with people. It gives the residents self-worth.

One 17-year-old explained how he’s changed. When he arrived, he was negative, didn’t want to be there.

“Working here opened my eyes in many ways. It showed me to care,” he said. “There are a lot of mentors here to motivate me. I’m loving it. I have a normal life.”

This young man had bandages on his face and arms. He explained he was having his tattoos removed. It would take another three sessions of painful treatments for them to be gone.

Tattoo removal is part of the benefits of doing community service. For every 15 hours of community work, boys can receive a treatment, thanks to a local cosmetic surgeon.

When Dr. Michael Stevens learned about the ranch’s community service program, he volunteered to trade laser removal for their service in the community.

It’s one more way the young men can become ready for the work world.

Goal is graduation

When the residents complete the program, they go through a graduation ceremony just like a high school graduation.

Then the hard part begins. 

Some go back to their homes or a relative’s, some to foster homes, or if they’re 18, they can qualify for the state-funded Transitional Housing Program, which helps support them until they are 25 as long as they are working or going to school.

“Age 18 is not a magical adult age,” said Gambini. “We have a second non-profit that meets weekly with those in transitional housing. They learn how to buy groceries and pay bills. At first, we handle most of the money, and gradually they can handle more of it on their own.”

Although Courage to Change has one of the highest success rates of California residential programs, only about 50 percent of the young men make it.

“We can take them out of a bad environment and can accomplish a lot here,” said Gambini. “But if they go home, they get sucked back in.”

Gambini and Sandoval both say it is the caring staff that helps many of the boys start a better life.

“It’s the people here. The way we run our program,” said Sandoval. “Someone cares. We’re there for them.”

They get a chance to achieve and be appreciated—maybe for the first time in their life.

“These are just children, born into an environment where they had no choice—either join a gang or be abused by one,” said Gambini. “When they feel what it’s like to help, to give back, that builds self-esteem. When someone says, ‘thank you,’ that’s big for them.”

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