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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
Residents of the program are all formerly incarcerated males between the ages of 13 and 19. They come from 28
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
Chief executive officer
"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."
"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."
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
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
"Growing up in
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."
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."
"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,
"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.
The structured life they lead at the ranch helps prepare them for life on their own. Clay begins each day at
"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:
Child care worker
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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."
(c)2016 The Fresno Bee (Fresno, Calif.)
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