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Paying Back for a Precious Gift Received


"It's been quite a journey," says Peter Huber, as he navigates the twisting mountain highway cutting through the San Bernardino National Forest. He is not referring to the two-hour drive between his home in Malibu and his destination near Big Bear, but to the odyssey begun six years ago when his then-12-year-old daughter, Heather, started abusing drugs.

The five years that followed saw Huber and former wife Jayne try to extricate their child from a seemingly endless cycle of rehabilitation centers and escapes from them, wilderness rehab programs, short-lived periods of being clean and sober and a months-long stretch of life on the Venice streets that nearly killed her. Heather finally began to recover at a wilderness program in Utah and now lives in Phoenix, where she is studying acting.

Motivated by a desire to help other parents and children avoid similar agony, Huber, 54, last year purchased a former YMCA camp in the mountains near Big Bear. After extensive refurbishment, it opened in June as the nonprofit Center for ReUniting Families at Camp Osceola, with a multifaceted program for healing that combines everything from the latest therapy techniques to Native American teachings in an inspiring natural environment.

"I wanted to do something to pay back for the gift I received, of Heather still being alive," says Huber, who estimates he has spent about $640,000 of his own money on the project. The holder of a doctorate in business administration, he founded a lucrative stereo company in the 1970s, was a part-time professor at Pepperdine University's School of Business from 1976 to 1989 and now co-owns a West Los Angeles computer store.

"There's so much pain out there," he says, "but in all the programs Heather went to, the focus was on her. And the reality is, the fault was not all hers. I had to look at what my part was, and my ex-wife's.

"When kids get back from these programs, the parents don't see the changes--they treat the kids as they did before. So if the family goes through the changes together, there is a forgiveness process."

The center's program lasts 28 days, with parents coming up on weekends. It will run year-round, regardless of mountain weather. It focuses on participants' emotional and physical landscapes.

Campers learn not only to deal with such issues as setting goals and priorities, living with mistakes, communicating with others, paying attention to intuitive feelings and coping with change, but also to perform necessary camp labor, learn to use a ropes course--where kids assist their parents--and climb the nearby 11,500-foot-high Mt. Gorgonio.

Not all participants will be drug or alcohol abusers. The camp will also treat teens with eating disorders or emotional problems.

The first 28-day program will begin in September. During the summer, the center, which can accommodate 300 people, is hosting camps for groups including the Breakthrough Foundation for troubled youth, the Scott Newman Center and the YMCA.

Huber's excitement is palpable as he parks his four-wheel drive, greets staff and leads a tour of the 19 cabins, amphitheater, meditation and campfire areas and other sites.

"The ropes course gets people to cooperate and become comfortable with each other," he says. "You stand on the ropes, hold hands and move out, so you have to trust each other. And on the high course, people climb a 60-foot pole. These things get you to be open to doing things you thought you couldn't. Once you've done that, and climbed a mountain, when things come up in everyday life that are hard, you'll say, 'That's nothing.' "

For all his determination in making the center a reality, Huber, who previously donated considerable time and money to drug and alcohol rehab centers and to a Malibu children's camp, is quick to point out he could not have realized his dream without his staff. Center president Jock de Swart, who holds a master's degree in environmental design and architecture and is a certified trainer in neurolinguistic programming, lives at the camp and is married to Huber's ex-wife.

Yahola Simms, a former addict who has spent 16 years counseling troubled teens, heads a nature program and imparts wisdom through storytelling.

"I can't say enough about Peter--he's like the spirit of Osceola, a man who would never give up," says Simms, great-great-great-grandson of the Seminole chief for whom the camp is named. "He exemplifies the word love , not by word, but by example. He's gone far beyond anything people said he'd be able to achieve."

The camp has already seen its first beneficiary: Huber's 18-year-old nephew Mike Richards, whose mother sent him there last December after his drug and alcohol use led to expulsion from school near Vancouver, Canada. He spent three months helping to ready the camp.

"They were a bunch of nice people. They showed me a lot of love, made me feel accepted," says Richards by phone, now back home where he is studying for his high school equivalency test and working at a landscaping company. "I got to like myself a lot better. I don't do drugs anymore. Being outdoors was a big part of it.

"Peter is constantly caring, a real sensitive guy," he adds. "If people are open to the camp, it's going to help a world."

* This occasional column tells the stories of the unsung heroes of Southern California, people whose dedication as volunteers or on the job makes life better for the people they encounter. Reader suggestions are welcome and may be sent to Local Hero Editor, Life & Style, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, Calif. 90053.

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