Salinas campus helps teens facing incarceration pave new pathways toward lifelong careers

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Saturday, January 20, 2024
Salinas campus helps teens facing incarceration pave new paths
Rancho Cielo Youth Campus in Salinas has been helping teens facing incarceration pave new pathways toward lifelong careers for 23 years.

SALINAS, Calif. (KGO) -- A judge in Salinas got tired of sending young offenders to prison for murder, assault, gang violence -- the list goes on.

Instead, he reached out to the community to do what few imagined would work. And so, giving hope to teens facing incarceration or experiencing hardship has been his mission for the past 23 years.

The wide open fields make Salinas one of the world's most famous farming communities.

But several years ago, Salinas also gained an unwanted reputation.

"Salinas was the murder capitol for juveniles in the state of California. My job was to send kids to prison," said retired judge John Phillips.

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Twenty-three years ago, as he was about to sentence a young man for murder, Phillips thought he and others in the community could do something to avoid sending youth to prison.

That's when Phillips thought of opening Rancho Cielo Youth Campus, a place known for giving young people a second chance.

Phillips transformed the land on the hills into a place that could reshape outcomes.

"I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was 10 at night. I was a my friend's house, the cops just pulled up," said Jesus Coronel, who was 16 at the time. His probation officer suggested taking a different path in life.

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"There's a place called Rancho Cielo that is based on people with your background," Coronel was told by his probation officer. He is now 18 and attending Rancho Cielo.

It's important to know they're not force to be here. These young people choose to come here. Once they go through those gates, they find some of the things that they've been missing in their lives like hope and opportunity.

Coronel told us without this program he would be lost.

There is a dress code. Students are not allowed to wear red or blue clothing and no sports apparel is allowed.

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Rancho Cielo offers students who have been incarcerated or struggling with school, a different approach to their education. In addition to the traditional classes, they are put on a vocational track.

Automotive and diesel repair is one of those. Students are also taught how to restore classic cars.

Salinas is in Monterey County, which is known around the world for its vintage cars.

"They get hired by local dealerships, or what we're trying to do, is put them in classic car restoration businesses," said Jose Tavares, the automotive repair instructor.

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Welding is among the most popular programs here, along with construction. In fact, these high school students designed and built a tiny modular home completely off the grid, winning first prize against 13 other schools -- all of them universities.

"Having that humbleness that we were able to do it, it feels good. It's a good feeling," said student Kevin Cacho.

It's not unusual for graduates of Rancho Cielo to come back and become mentors, like Ezequiel Rodriguez, who now works in construction in Monterey County.

"I still want to help out guiding the students, because I had the same path as them when I was younger," Rodriguez said.

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"The kitchen was where I was able to find my passion, and my sense of direction and find my place in life," said Caleb Baker, another graduate of the program.

"It wasn't the do-gooders that got all these kids out of jail or out of prison. It was the business community that came in," Phillips said.

Once the business community got involved, big name philanthropists in the area got behind the school.

Rancho Cielo began with 94 students and now has more than 200.

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"When my wife and I were running it, our operating budget was $75,000, and now our operating budget is $5.2 million a year," he said.

Some of that money is used to fund activities outside the classroom, like horseback riding, a bike program and fishing.

"Having an open space like this is positive," Phillips said.

Students are encouraged to use the outdoors as a way to relieve stress and any emotional pain they may have.

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And when they leave here, graduates know they now have the necessary life skills to succeed.

"Being prepared to go to work, to get a job, show up on time, to take directions, to operate and communicate, collaborate and be part of the team," said the CEO of Rancho Cielo, Chris Devers.

According to Phillips, 85% of those who once went through the juvenile justice system and graduate from the program never re-offend.

"Land of opportunity. It's an opportunity for these young people to grow, so it's been a great run," he said.

The California Division of Juvenile Justice says it costs more than $271,000 to incarcerate a Juvenile. The cost of this program? Just $25,000 per student.

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