Every Tuesday night, Robert Underhill and a handful of other volunteers visit the "Y" unit at Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall, where juvenile offenders are held for committing some of the most violent crimes.
Underhill, 32, a finance manager for the Burbank-based Disney Channel, usually arrives at the Sylmar facility with board games, magazines, books, potato chips, candy or cupcakes.
"We like to bring stuff they don't get to have very often," he said Tuesday.
Underhill, who has been a volunteer at the detention center for five years, said he has learned to look beyond the teenagers' crimes--which include murder, assault, rape and carjacking--and see that deep down they are troubled youths.
"I think a lot of us don't see a huge difference with these kids compared to kids on the outside," he said. "I think there is hope for them on a one-on-one basis."
Underhill was first motivated to help at-risk teenagers after his father died suddenly of a heart attack eight years ago. "I realized then how lucky I was," he said. "When something like that is taken away, it made me really appreciate my father."
Underhill was so moved by his father's death that he decided to become a mentor to a 17-year-old boy on probation. Seeing Underhill's desire to help other youths, the boy's probation officer took him on a tour of Juvenile Hall.
"Everything I knew about teenage gang members was what I saw on television," he said. "It was kind of a frightening thing to be there at first."
He said he felt a sense of hopelessness at discovering that many of the youths could not read or write. Underhill initiated a homework tutoring program for the facility's on-site accredited school and recruited other volunteers from the Walt Disney Co. to help out.
Since then, the program has evolved to weekly volunteer-led activities, such as grammar and current events games or Pictionary, to help relieve the stress of being locked up.
On Tuesday night, Underhill served as master of ceremonies for a lighthearted game of "Juvenile Jeopardy." For 45 minutes, the boys in bright orange jumpsuits divided into teams at three steel tables bolted to the cement floor in their unit's "day room." While the boys chewed on suckers and ate bread with jelly and drank nonfat milk, they laughed and debated answers to questions on sports, music, television and movies.
"It's good when these guys come," said a 15-year-old whose team won after answering a question about World War II. "They give us things to think about other than what we're in for."
The soft-spoken boy who said he has been at the facility since Jan. 4 would not talk about his crime. "I just got caught up in some trouble. That's all."
Others in the room were awaiting final sentencing for their felonies: carjacking, possession of a firearm and murder.
"They are showing us there's a better way to relieve stress," said an 18-year-old convicted of carjacking and robbery.
After the game, some of the boys received and read mail, while others played chess or checkers with the volunteers. The board games provide much needed quiet time for the volunteers and teenagers to talk, Underhill said.
"They are scared," he said. "They can't talk to the other kids here. They don't want to appear to be weak."
Underhill hears mostly about the boys' fears about the crimes they have committed and their futures. Nidorf Juvenile Hall is a temporary way station for about 700 juvenile offenders between the ages of 12 and 18. The majority of teenagers--about 85%--are boys.
Many are still awaiting trial. Others have been sentenced and are waiting for a spot at one of the California Youth Authority's 17 facilities, camps or residential drug-treatment programs. A few will move on from there to federal prison.
"After [Robert] leaves, we see a change in these kids," said the detention center's program services coordinator, Officer Louis DuBois. "They are happier, more relaxed and more easygoing. Without the volunteers, it would be very hard to do our jobs."
Other volunteers visit throughout the week, offering activities such as yoga, a writing and reading program, lessons on how to write a resume, even Saturday and weekday afternoon jazz, classical and gospel music concerts. For many, the volunteers will be the only visitors the youths see.
"We have the idea that criminals are weird-looking or have hard-looking faces," DuBois said. "That's not the case. These kids are little babies that need a lot of love. That's why we depend so much on the volunteers. They bring that with them."
Underhill and other volunteers said they believe they are making a difference. A volunteer once received a jacket, complete with store receipt to prove it was not stolen, from a group of boys jailed at Nidorf who were concerned she was without cover even on the coldest days, they said. Another time, a boy told a volunteer that he would rob people like her on the outside, but would think twice about it the next time.
"None of these kids are used to people being nice to them," Underhill said. "If no one does anything, they won't change."
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