A running program is giving some youth in detention not only a physical outlet for stress but also meditative time to refocus and readjust attitudes that landed them in trouble. It’s turned into both a goal and an accomplishment they never thought they could attain – and an important component of their efforts to get their lives on the right track.
Recently, seven youth in the custody of County Probation competed in the Silver Strand Half Marathon, all with times under 2 hours 30 minutes. They’d trained by running laps around East Mesa Juvenile Detention Facility and under supervision in the foothills near Camp Barrett in Alpine.
The fastest of the group was Kenny W., who finished third in his age division, or 59th overall out of 1,550 total race participants, with a time of 1:37:28.
Kenny, 17, now released on probation, recounted a past marred by trouble. He’s been detained three different times for various offenses including fighting and theft. He was even shot in one run-in. He thinks running and a youth boxing program can steer him away from his old ways.
Kenny readily admits that he likes the praise that comes from being good at running, a sport he’d never tried before this program.
At Camp Barrett, the young people apply to be in the program by writing an essay, and they can remain in it by maintaining good behavior. Dr. Carlos Nelson, a senior clinical psychologist from the County’s Health and Human Services Agency assigned to the camp, said running can bring about huge changes in youth like Kenny. Exercise helps with mood problems, anxiety and self-esteem.
“All of them have a desire to connect with something really positive,” said Nelson. “Some of them are so depressed or traumatized or live in environments that are so impoverished that they lost their hope and desire to thrive. Exercise and experiences with success reignite their hope and desire to do well in life.”
Certainly, Kenny felt the positive benefits of joining the running club.
“After a few weeks of training with them, I felt better. I felt healthier and my self-esteem was high,” said Kenny.
He was often the class clown, doing anything for a laugh even if it meant getting in trouble. But that changed when he didn’t want to chance being kicked out of the Camp Barrett Running Club, he said. He hopes to run the Carlsbad Half Marathon in January. And he has other goals for himself, including joining a welding training program.
“When I’m running, a lot of stuff goes through my head, but it’s all good. I kept positive thoughts in my mind like ‘You can do it.’ I was motivating myself,” said Kenny. “Pain is temporary but achievement is permanent.”
At East Mesa Juvenile Detention Facility in Otay Mesa, Correctional Deputy Probation Officer R. Martinez tried for years to establish a running program but many thought it could be a security risk. Eventually, the program developed in 2011, and security has not been a problem.
Martinez said he was also troubled as a teenager and he credits sports with helping him move in a different direction. He felt strongly that youth could be helped by doing physical activity.
Staff from Probation, Health and Human Services and the County Office of Education have supported the youth by running alongside them and donating running shoes. Companies have also been generous with shoe donations or waiving entry fees at events. Martinez and staff at Camp Barrett and the Reflections school program teach youth about running techniques, injury prevention, diet, different types of running shoes and training. They run up to an hour every day and sometimes longer.
“What these guys get from running is it calms them down. At least while they’re in here, it helps them out so much,” said Martinez. He hopes it’s a coping skill they’ll use after they are released and beyond. But running is not going to be a life-changer in itself, Martinez said. The teenagers have to be ready for a complete course correction.
When he began the program at East Mesa, Martinez had six runners at most. Now there are about 17 at a time. Not all are ready to run in a half-marathon, he said.
Other standouts in the Silver Strand Half Marathon were Demarco G., who finished fourth in his age division and 116th overall with a time of 1:43:01, and Hector L., who finished ninth in his age division and 472nd overall with a time of 2:04:41. Both are now at home on probation.
Demarco was on his last chance at East Mesa, due to getting into repeated fights with others. He had signed a contract that stated if he continued getting in trouble, he would be sent to the state’s youth detention facility. After he got involved in the program, he became respectful, responsible and an example to other youth in his unit, said Supervising Probation Officer Brian Day.
Demarco said he still had a “gangbanger mentality” when he entered into Probation custody, but after two years, he’s “matured a lot” and is ready to move on with his life. While in custody, his mother died and he has since been adopted by his neighbor, who essentially raised him when he was younger because his mother had a drinking problem, Demarco said. His adoptive mother got him back on the right path he had deviated from as a teenager. His adoptive father is also a runner and ran alongside him in the Silver Strand race.
“They never gave up on me,” Demarco said.
As for running, he said, “I think it does help me mentally. It burns off stress.”
He adds, “I like to do it because I like to be the best at what I do. I try my hardest. I push myself.”
Hector had also been in and out of juvenile detention for years. When he first arrived at East Mesa, he was depressed about his predicament and being separated from his family. After he began running, he noticed it was changing his mindset. It gave him hope, even though he struggled initially.
“When I first went out there (to run), it was torture, but after a while, Mr. Martinez kept pushing and pushing me and I wanted to be better. I kept pushing until stopping wasn’t an option. I never knew something simple like running would help me,” said Hector. “It gave me goals, more motivation and determination.”
He said he’s proud of his accomplishments at East Mesa: finishing both high school and the half marathon. He hopes to strengthen ties with his family and start at Grossmont College so that one day he can be an at-risk youth counselor and help other kids by sharing his story.