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No longer behind bars, teens share first real Christmas at Valley Teen Ranch [The Fresno Bee :: BC-HDY-EDU-FIRST-CHRISTMAS:FR]

FRESNO, Calif. - A teenage boy stares silently at a teddy bear for several long moments during a Christmas party at Valley Teen Ranch last week before a softness creeps into his face. The gift stuns him at first, but it's not stifled disappointment. This is alien territory for a child who trained himself to act tough through months of lonely nights in a sparse juvenile hall cell devoid of stuffed animals.

As a friend sitting beside him unwraps a teddy bear of his own, he turns to his buddy: "Hey, we got matching bears, bro!" They swap smiles.

"Hi bear," the teen says, looking at his present, "I love you."

As they pose for a group photo in front of a decorated Christmas tree at their group home, another teen, 18-year-old Clay, blurts out: "It's the best Christmas I ever had! Seriously. The best Christmas I ever had."

For many teens at Valley Teen Ranch, which celebrates its 30th anniversary next year, the three group homes they live in for six months to a year on 80 rural acres outside Madera is their first glimpse at what a supportive, functional family can look like.

Residents of the program are all formerly incarcerated males between the ages of 13 and 19. They come from 28 California counties, with priority given to those in the central San Joaquin Valley.

The ranch is currently home to 26 children and can house up to 32. To qualify, teens must be ordered by a probation department to enter a group home. They are then chosen by Valley Teen Ranch staff through an interview process.

Chief executive officer Connie Clendenan says the teens never had a chance to "be little boys and have fun and play fairly."

"They know how to fight, they know how to run, they know how to quit," she says, "but they have never stuck to anything where they could succeed."

Staff at Valley Teen Ranch works to help them change that by showing them what "being respectful, honest and reliable" looks like.

"It's those simple things that start building a platform where we can feel safe and we can respect and we can trust," Clendenan says, "and when we can trust, then we can love, and then, once we get to that point, then we can talk about our hurts and our hangups and our habits - and we all have 'em."

NO SUGARCOATING

Clay grew up with "no sugarcoated nothing, no perfect picket fences."

"Just living every day is like an accomplishment, because you can walk out of your door in my neighborhood and get shot at," says the young man from San Francisco.

As a child, he lived in constant fear of being shot for something his brothers did or police raiding his house. Others would shoot you "just because you're being successful and another person want what you have, so they're going to try and take you out."

Seventeen-year-old R.C., who graduated from the ranch last week, shares a similar struggle. (Names of Valley Teen Ranch residents have been shortened to initials, or last names removed, for their protection.)

"Growing up in Oakland, California, is a cold game," R.C. says. "It's greasy, you feel me? It's a lot of things going on, and you just got to be on your toes. ... I wouldn't wish none of this on nobody."

Clay says his brothers were always "gang banging, always in the streets."

"My older brothers have always been in and out of jail," he says, "so I guess I felt like I kind of took to it, because I had to help my mom."

Clay, like R.C., says his dad isn't in his life.

Clay was 11 years old the first time the door of a juvenile hall cell locked behind him. He has picked up several armed robbery and gun charges over the years. Along with stealing to help his mother, he stole to help himself.

"Nobody gonna' buy me no new Jordans (sneakers), I had to go buy them myself. When you see people going back to school every school year with the newest shoes or newest clothes, and you are still wearing the same thing from last year - I came to a point in my life, made up my mind, basically: I'm not going to be the laughingstock, laughed at. If other people can do it (steal), I can, too."

FEELINGS

Clay now works for his money as a morning cook at the ranch. In a greenhouse on the property last week, he picks vegetables with pride that he helped grow.

"I can walk outside and just look at the grass, it's nice," he says of his new temporary home. "I can take a breath of fresh air without having to be looking over my shoulder at who is trying to get me."

Valley Teen Ranch has a school on its property and offers vocational training in food preparation, building and swimming pool maintenance, woodworking and caring for livestock. "Ranch" is in the name for good reason. The property is also home to horses, goats and emus. Along with academics and vocational training, the ranch offers sports and emotional therapy.

"They are sad," Clendenan says. "They don't all show that the same way, and they don't necessarily identify it in those words, but there is a lot of emptiness and a lot of hurt which usually ends up coming out in anger."

She says most also struggle with substance abuse and gang issues. The ranch's clinical psychologist, Leslie Hoyt, helps the young men work through these issues.

"I like the way she talks to me," 18-year-old Vashti says about Hoyt. "I like the way she cares about my feelings. I like the way she's here to help me and not to just be here in my life. She actually wants to be involved. She asks questions. She's helping me transition into my own life."

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Hoyt has been helping Vashti apply for college. He is interested in becoming an electrical engineer. Valley Teen Ranch also has a transitional living home in Fresno for young men without families between the ages of 18 and 24.

The structured life they lead at the ranch helps prepare them for life on their own. Clay begins each day at 5 a.m. to cook breakfast for his fellow teens. Before food is served at 7:10 a.m., the boys circle up for a group prayer, like they do before every meal. While faith is at the core of the Christian organization, Clendenan says that "we don't hammer them with that."

"It's not about religion, it's about relationship," she says as Clay sits down beside her and puts an arm around her shoulder.

Clay graduates from the ranch next month but intends to stay in touch. He affectionately calls Clendenan his "grannie." He says many of the male staff members have become father figures.

During a graduation ceremony last week for R.C. and 15-year-old C.S., many of them shared fatherly advice and heartfelt support in a way that connected:

Counselor Bayon Harris: "Set your mind up, get a plan, follow that plan and achieve those goals that you set forth ... You weren't perfect, you got upset at things, but you didn't let those things bother you and keep you down. You dealt with it, you got over it, and you kept going, and sometimes that's what we got to do in life, you know, because not everything is going to be golden.

Phillip Ward, one of the group home supervisors: "Our doors are always open, your feet are always welcome at our table. If you need anything, call us, and if we can do it and it's within our means and legit, I'm sure we'll help you guys out."

Child care worker Bill Gordon: "I thank both of you guys for making my job out here a smile."

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SECOND CHANCES

C.S., who has been struggling with addiction, recently wrote a letter to his probation officer and juvenile judge: "I did not see myself becoming the person I am today before I came to this program. I wanted to change but for some reason I just couldn't do it alone. I am grateful for this second chance at life I was given."

R.C., who says he used to like playing with guns, says he now thinks about "how I don't want my sister to go to my funeral."

"I'm glad that I just learned a lot of things that can change my life."

The compassion of others is helping make change possible.

"Just talk to us," R.C. says as advice for helping other young men like himself. "If you talk to us, you never know - some people it's just that simple. A conversation to change a person's whole life, you feel me?"

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After the teens open a number of donated presents during last week's Christmas party, Clendenan passes a box of instruments around the circle. As she leads the group in a passionate sing-along to Christmas classics such as "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "Jingle Bells," the teens wildly bang tambourines, shake jingle bells and shakers, clank triangles and play flutes to their hearts' content. Everyone is a child again.

"I'm pretty sure there are other people here, too, who have never had a Christmas. ... It just opens my eyes to so many things," Clay says. "Basically, to see what so many other people in life have every year. People get brand new things every year. ... I feel like when I have kids, I don't want them to go through the same thing that I have. I want them to have Christmases."

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(c)2016 The Fresno Bee (Fresno, Calif.)

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