JFK University interns gain experience by helping troubled youth
By Lou Fancher
Every summer, a team of students from John F. Kennedy University's MA Sport Psychology program heads to the Orin Allen Youth Rehabilitation Facility in Byron to teach troubled youth a new direction.
And every summer for 23 years, the graduate student interns emerge: transformed by five days with kids whose lives are marked by negative social stigmas, racial and ethnic profiling, family and community strife, and their own faltering self-esteem.
The Pleasant Hill-based university's LEAP (Life Enhancement through Athletic Participation) Project was launched in the early 1990s by Gail Solt, then the sports psychology program director.
Through a one-week camp designed to reshape the mindset of young boys who've stepped out of line one too many times, the interns gain experience applying classroom theories in a real world environment.
As the program has developed, LEAP has partnered with El Sobrante Boys and Girls Club's AAU Basketball teams to provide similar life-skills-through-sports connections to underserved, high school-aged youth.
With reducing recidivism as a goal and eager to prove their teaching skills can usurp the power of teenage rebelliousness, gang affiliations and lives spinning out of control, this year's interns were most surprised by themselves.
"I didn't expect to have the connection," said Carl Harding. The 23-year-old entered the camp worried about his own performance and found his goals changing. "As soon as I went in there, it was about building rapport, learning what they wanted to achieve," he said.
Jamie Cisar, 25, said her ambition was to teach focus and calming techniques the boys could use to re-enter the world and never return to the Boys Ranch. A collegiate swimmer, she shared circle breathing, concentration skills and positive self-talk and reinforcements throughout the daily sessions.
Working with 16 boys accepted into the camp, 10 interns participated. Camp supervisor Andre Demian said relatedness, safety and acceptance were primary themes. Although the time-tested curriculum is structured, he said nothing is fixed when it comes to dealing with young people.
"Each person brings their own life experience to a foundation that is dependable and consistent," he said.
Harding, who has no personal history with law enforcement and had never witnessed incarceration, said watching the boys enter the camp in straight lines with their hands behind their backs was the only disquieting moment.
Cisar said all strangers are intimidating at first, but by the final dinner they shared with the boys, first-day fears were dispelled.
"After the rope course, they were so appreciative. The hardest part was saying goodbye to them," she recalled.
Harding agreed, saying the bonds formed through common interests like food, music and sports, left him feeling "pretty emotional on the final day."
Seventeen-year-old Victor, whose last name was withheld to protect his safety, said the camp helped him face his fear of heights.
"We had to climb an 80 foot tree and then jump off with a harness. I climbed up -- it didn't look so high from the ground. It took me 10 seconds. I closed my eyes and jumped. After, I was able to jump it again," he said.
Victor said he's no longer as scared of heights, but he still had trouble trusting the interns with his life story, even after what he calls, "trusting them with my life."
No one had ever taught him deep breathing or positive self-talk, which he believes will help him to think of consequences instead of diving into trouble.
"That self-talk, I think I might do that; I am going do that," he said.
Asked what he'd add or change about the camp, Victor said he'd never gone fishing or camping in his 17 years of life and might like to try both.
"It would be cool if the interns came out a couple times a month. Even in a week, it was like we knew them for a longer time. It was a good experience," he said.
Art Calbert, a former LEAP counselor and Boys Ranch supervisor, has witnessed positive progress in the boys who attend the camp.
"Five days with the kids from JFK is short, given the boys are here for several months rehabilitating, but if they can retain something they learned in that split second, that's saying a lot."
He's seen the camp break down barriers, especially between boys who are members of opposing gangs.
"Knocking their blockages down gives them incentive to get along when they meet up in the future," Calbert said.
Demian said there have been discussions about internships allowing individual visits, but for now, the program is self-contained and will consist of the two, one-week camps each summer.
"The boys bring it to other boys at the ranch and one-on-one teaching happens," he said, hoping that would spread the program beyond the 16 participants.
Even so, Harding wished he could have stayed longer and Cisar said that showing the boys they are appreciated was an "irreplaceable experience" she hopes the boys will remember forever and she will never forget.