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Katherine Hillier

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Feature:
Inside Camp Afflerbaugh

Los Angeles County kids in trouble with the law often end up at this local camp in the foothills of our city.

Heading up Stephens Ranch road in La Verne leads to the entry of a camp hidden deep in the foothills. This is the where two juvenile detention centers are located, Camp Afflerbaugh and Camp Paige.

Camp Afflerbaugh has been in operation since 1961, when the Los Angeles County Probation Department created the camp. The camp spans three acres and currently hosts 94 boys ranging in age from 13-17. It can accommodate up to 110. Many arrived after committing crimes including gang involvement, drug abuse or violence. An average stay is six months, but can vary based on the crime and the punishment handed down by the court.

Camp Director Leon Bass oversees the day-to-day operations at Afflerbaugh. A 32-year veteran of the Los Angeles County Probation Department, Bass brings experience from two other camp director positions. He first became interested in serving young people in their communities while working at the YMCA in South Central Los Angeles.

“I liked working with kids and athletics,” says Bass, who has been running Camp Afflerbaugh since January.

“I wanted to help them with anything that could enhance their abilities, not only for themselves but for their community.”

At the suggestion of a longtime friend, Bass volunteered for the probation department in 1974. Upon receiving his bachelor’s degree from Cal State Dominguez Hills, Bass began his career as a probation officer. He then moved on to his first camp director position at Camp Challenger, another juvenile detention center, in Lancaster.

Bass has a systematic approach in running Camp Afflerbaugh. He is devoted to making these young men feel wanted.

“I try to focus on the treatment of these kids,” Bass says. “I tell my staff all the time, ‘Treat these kids like they are yours, because many of them come here with a lot of baggage. You need to try to encourage and uplift them or else you could lose them.’”

Many camp residents come from broken homes. Some are repeat offenders. Several have been involved with gangs, friends or others who may have steered them away from school. Bass believes that a lack of education is at the root of the problems that many of these kids face.

“The lack of education is the biggest thing you see here,” says Bass. “Most of these kids have first- and second-grade reading levels, so we work toward improving that.”

Every boy at the camp has his own story. Eighteen-year-old Miguel is one of the few cadets who had already received his General Education Degree.

Miguel says he got caught up in the wrong situation shortly after graduating, which landed him at Afflerbaugh. Although he has felt hopeless at times, Miguel insists his stay at camp is not as terrible as some may think.

“It’s not bad once you get used to the environment,” says Miguel. “I think it’s really what you make of it. It’s all in your mindset.”

At the same time, Miguel has been looking forward his release and the opportunities that await him outside of the camp. With a job already lined up thanks to help from the camp, Miguel hopes to start attending college in 2008 and eventually pursue a career in the film industry.

Still, he has come to appreciate some aspects of life at Afflerbaugh.

“I’m gonna miss the experience here,” Miguel says with a smile. “I’m gonna miss going to work early in the morning and seeing those mountains. I’m gonna miss the whole program. I’m gonna miss it all.”

Another cadet who is going to miss the camp when his time is done is Lance, a 17-year-old African-American who has been at the camp since December. Lance is trying to finish his education so he can attend college and begin to work for a degree in criminal justice. He believes he can help kids the way the probation officers and staff have helped him.

“I know I can do it,” Lance says. “I’m not coming back here again.”

Neither is Johnny, who has been in the camp since October.

“This camp was a wake-up call for me,” Johnny says. “You’ve got to be willing to do what you have to do.”

His priorities have changed. Instead of his former gang, his family is now his main concern.

“I did my thing for them. Now it is time for me to live my life,” Johnny says. “It was cool to kick it with the homies. But now I wanna live my own life.”

After his release, Johnny intends to stay out of trouble. Once he is out, he would like to support his family by joining the Marines.

“I’d rather fight for a country or something that means something than a gang or a city,” Johnny says. “I’d rather take a bullet for my family in war than on the streets.”

Camp Afflerbaugh is designed to get young men like these back on track. Many of them have never had anyone care enough to educate them and help them make better choices. Many hope to complete their education and get on with their lives.

Thanks to places like Camp Afflerbaugh, Miguel and Lance have been able to change their lives dramatically. Camps like Afflerbaugh symbolize hope, not just for La Verne and the surrounding community, but also for the entire state.