Jeff Sites knew his reading program was headed for success when he spotted something he had never seen in his three years as a counselor at Pacific Lodge Boys' Home: a young man ambling across the yard with his head down, eyes fixed on the pages of the open book in his hands.
"I wish I'd had a camera," Sites said. "I'd heard the buzz on campus about the reading program, but to see a kid who wouldn't put his book down, that was more than even I'd hoped for."
For most of the teenagers at Pacific Lodge -- a residential program in Woodland Hills for boys with emotional or behavioral problems -- reading hadn't been an enjoyable experience, but a frustrating and degrading chore.
More than 90% of the boys read below grade level; half cannot read as well as a typical third-grader. Many have learning disabilities, and others have had their education disrupted by unstable home lives, truancy and neglect. Most are on probation for minor crimes. Some were plucked from the streets or rescued from abusive or drug-addicted parents.
Books are in their hands today thanks to the generosity of Times readers, who contributed more than $1 million last year to the Los Angeles Times Family Fund of the McCormick Tribune Foundation to help charities across Southern California provide services for needy families and disadvantaged children.
A $15,000 grant from last year's holiday campaign funded Pacific Lodge's reading program, which combines one-on-one tutoring, a computerized reading improvement system and well-stocked libraries in each residential cottage.
The foundation's 2005 holiday campaign gets underway today, and a long list of nonprofit groups have already sent their wish lists this way. Because the McCormick Tribune Foundation absorbs the fund's administrative costs, every penny raised goes directly to families and kids in need.
Last year's grants funded scores of agencies, providing, among other things, emergency food and housing for homeless families, a computer lab and homework help for struggling inner-city children, shelter and legal services for abused young women, and job training to lure discouraged youths away from crime and drugs.
Pacific Lodge used its grant to purchase workbooks and computer programs and build a reading nook in each cottage, stocked with books, a computer and comfortable furniture. Special privileges and small gifts were doled out to those who met their reading goals.
"Our idea was to dangle the carrot of prizes to get them to start reading," said Sites, the program's coordinator. "But it took off so well, now they're requesting books, going out and buying books. We've got guys who have read over 20 books in the past few months."
Sites said gaps in attendance caused many of the boys to fall behind in school: "When you're truant or drop out or are away in probation camp, you miss a real specific set of skills. Then you return and can't keep up."
He said that fuels the sense of anger and hopelessness that lands many back in trouble on the streets.
"When we're able to help them patch those holes, we see a pretty drastic jump in their ability," he said, adding that the dividends go beyond improved school performance: There's the self-esteem boost they get from holding their own in class; the satisfaction of setting a goal and meeting it; the discovery, through literature, of an outside world full of pleasures and possibilities.
"We try to get books with subject matter they like and characters they can relate to," Sites said. "The most popular books are about kids their age, growing up in tough neighborhoods, going through tough times. It's therapeutic for them; they benefit from reading about kids like that, seeing themselves in the stories."
The reading program suits the mission of Pacific Lodge: to give every boy the confidence, education and skills to build a productive and meaningful life.
The center began as a working ranch 82 years ago. Then, as now, it was a refuge for orphaned, abandoned and wayward boys -- a compassionate alternative to reform school, a jail cell or life on the streets.
Today, more than 200 boys find a temporary home each year in the compound's cottages and dorms, where they attend school, receive therapy and practice the social and behavioral skills needed to steer clear of trouble. Times readers' holiday gifts have helped nudge them one step closer to success.
Money raised last year has provided $1.4 million to help children in need in 2005.
The annual fundraising campaign is part of the Los Angeles Times Family Fund of the McCormick Tribune Foundation, which this year will match the first $500,000 in contributions at 50 cents on the dollar.
Donations are tax-deductible. For more information, call (213) 237-5771. To make donations by credit card, go to latimes.com/holidaycampaign.
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