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Boot Camp Gives Troubled Youths a Sense of Discipline


SANTA CLARITA — Under the blazing sun, kids wearing fatigues stagger into an empty dirt lot, gasping for air after a punishing run in the hills.

They would rather be doing cannonballs into a pool, shopping at the mall or catching a Dodgers game. Yet here they are--reluctantly--wanting a drink of water and a break. Sweating profusely and hunched over, 10-year-old Damien has only one thought:

"I hate this."

While his friends were soaking in the last days of summer, Damien and 20 or so other youths began a rigorous, 16-week boot camp called VIDA, run by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. The letters stand for Vital Intervention Directional Alternatives, but the acronym has a meaning of its own--it is Spanish for "life."

The youths, ages 10 to 17, are here because they have gotten into some sort of trouble, from problems at home to criminal violations such as shoplifting or grand theft. They are referred to the program by a judge, a school official or, in some cases, their own parents.

Damien didn't divulge why he was at the boot camp except to say he was "disrespecting my parents." When asked about his placement in the program, his eyes shift and his head dips.

"My parents told me to do something and I didn't listen," he said. "I've done stuff they didn't approve of and now I'm here. I'm not happy about this either."

Every Saturday for the next 3 1/2 months, plus an additional four hours during the week, the new cadets will be challenged mentally and physically. Their 10-hour day is divided into several parts. The early morning is devoted to physical fitness. No matter their shape, size or age, all the youths are required to complete the workout, which includes a two-mile jog, lifting heavy logs and plenty of push-ups.

Nurturing the Body and Mind

As the youngest, Damien struggles to keep up with the group. But as the weeks go by, the boy's endurance builds under the watchful eye of military instructors who handle the conditioning.

Later in the day, the group heads to the nearby classrooms of Passport Academy on Redview Drive near Soledad Canyon Road, a public school that helps students catch up on missed credits. The youths listen to adults lecture about morals and goals--aspects that may be lacking in their lives.

A hint of Damien's behavior springs forth when he thinks no one is watching. He makes faces at a couple of the girls and pulls down his pants on the way to the bathroom, the only place the youths aren't monitored.

Class resumes and volunteer teachers tutor the cadets in English and math. Community service projects round out the day's schedule and the youths are allowed to go home about 5 p.m.

Damien contemplates possible failure, given the harsh conditions.

"I hope I will do well here because I don't want to get recycled."

He has been in the program only two weeks and he already knows the lingo. Getting "recycled" means returning to the program and suffering through another 16 weeks.

His platoon leader, 16-year-old Amanda, has been recycled, but much to the surprise of her teachers, she came back of her own accord.

Amanda was a member of the first VIDA class in Santa Clarita earlier this year, but she didn't graduate. She was referred to the program because her life was spiraling out of control, she said.

Before school one day in January, Amanda and a friend guzzled vodka. She wound up in the hospital, getting her stomach pumped for alcohol poisoning. The experience was enough to steer her in a different direction.

She enrolled in the program, but called in sick the first day.

"I finally got down there and it was horrible," she said. "They were yelling at me and making us work hard. I hated everybody."

But Amanda stuck with the program and the instructors started noticing a change about the fourth or fifth week. That's usually when youths realize that fighting authority is fruitless and begin embracing the program, said Deputy Donna Elliott, who coordinates the VIDA program in the Santa Clarita Valley.

A Change for the Better

Amanda began excelling at school and became a leader. But two weeks before she was set to graduate from the program, she called Elliott, falsely claiming she had had a relapse with marijuana.

"I wasn't ready to leave the program yet, so I lied to her," Amanda recalled. "I know if I had left at that point, I was going to do something bad again."

Elliott and others have noticed the girl's perseverance although they know that once she is gone, it will be up to Amanda and her parents to chart the right path.

"She's amazing, isn't she?" asks Deputy John Hudson, who witnessed Amanda's transformation. "Not everyone makes it. The program works well for the kids who really want the help."

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