If you doubt the positive effects that sports have on kids, spend an hour strolling the grounds of the Pacific Lodge Boys Home in Woodland Hills. Talk to a few of the boys whose lives took detours down some dark roads. And then watch them play.
Pacific Lodge, a rehabilitative center for juvenile delinquents funded mostly by state and county agencies, is a temporary home for 84 boys. Some have been abused or neglected. Most come from broken homes. All have been arrested and convicted of crimes. And all are being given a chance to jump off that road to nowhere.
The center offers counseling and education and vocational training. But perhaps as important as any of those, it also offers sports. And for kids who once considered auto theft a sport, the light shimmering inside their impressive new $1.1 million gymnasium just might serve as a beacon.
In the 16 brief years that Mark has lived, he has been involved in gang fights and robberies as the hallucinogenic drug PCP ravaged his mind and body. After several months at Pacific Lodge, the strikingly handsome youngster is starting to emerge from that light-less cave. But the scars of his childhood are evident when he talks. It is a slow, sad, mournful tone that he uses to describe the wars he has fought.
But seconds after stepping through the door of Pacific Lodge's gym, that ugly chapter in his life seems to vanish. Gone is the sorrowful, pained look. In its place is the beaming smile of a kid in sneakers with not a care in the world other than whether the 20-foot jump shot from the corner is going to find the net.
"This place is all about making connections with these kids," said Jim Lee, the assistant executive director at Pacific Lodge. "It's about reaching them and showing them that they don't need delinquent behavior, that there's an alternative to that. We use the vocational programs and the educational programs and the counseling, but sports serves to multiply the possibilities, to expose these kids to an entirely new set of values. If you can learn the value of teamwork and discipline, things get much easier."
Money for the gym came from private donations, and ground was broken one year ago. It is now complete, with a grand opening scheduled today. Olga Connolly, who won a gold medal in the discus in the 1956 Olympics, will preside over day-long ceremonies and activities.
Where once an old, pest-infested gym stood, today stands a gleaming new structure, brightly colored inside and out with a beamed ceiling and glistening new floor. The impact of the project is best seen in the faces of the boys who will use it, young faces toughened much beyond their years. But behind those tough faces are some pretty fragile emotions.
"These people went out of their way to build us a gym," said 17-year-old Jason, an admitted ex-drug dealer. "A lot of us aren't used to anybody going out of their way to do anything for us. It makes us feel pretty special."
The old gym, built in 1927, was torn down to make room for the new one. Actually, according to Lee, torn down is not entirely accurate. Pushed over is more like it.
"When that bulldozer hit it, it went down in a hurry," said Lee, who has worked at Pacific Lodge for 12 years. "It had birds nests inside and bee hives and all kinds of other things. When that building went down, a lot of animals went looking for a new home."
Among the features of the old gym were walls standing just inches from the edges of the basketball court. Some of the older kids at the lodge recall not-so-fond memories of chasing a loose ball and waking up 10 minutes later with a very sore face. There's going to be some more soreness around the lodge now, the soreness from too much basketball, volleyball, weight lifting, martial arts and other sports.
"All the other placement centers I've been in didn't put any emphasis on sports at all," Mark said. "Me and the other kids always missed sports. It just wasn't important to the people in charge, but it was the most important thing to us.
"Before I got into so much trouble with gangs and drugs, I was becoming a pretty good athlete. I was on my school's basketball and swim teams for a while, but when I got in trouble, I figured all that was over. That hurt me as much as anything, kissing off sports like that. Now I know I might get another chance."
Deon, a 16-year-old who developed a bad habit of "borrowing" cars--first his great grandfather's and then his mother's--also said sports played a major part of his life before he began landing in juvenile court on auto theft charges.
"Football. That was my game," he said. "I was on my sophomore team in high school before all the trouble. I guess I kind of gave up on sports. But this gym is too nice not to take advantage of. I'm gonna start lifting weights again and getting ready. Maybe I'll get a chance to play football again when I leave here and go back to high school. Or maybe even in college."
Dominic, a 15-year-old whose life once consisted of robbing houses to pay for his drugs, puts it more succinctly: "The new gym gives us something to look forward to. It makes us feel important, knowing someone did this for us."
For a bunch of kids trying to climb out from under a lifetime of hurt administered in a short period of time, a sparkling new gym is reason enough to celebrate.
"We're gonna start playing basketball as a team ," said Juan, a 16-year-old with a history of breaking and entering and other juvenile crimes. "You know, doing things together ? We're pretty excited about it."