AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREWhicker: Clemson demonstrates that it’s tough to knock out the champ“They’re here because they know we can’t be home with our own families.” Jason, with a shadow of a mustache, wore a striped collared shirt and tie to the party, a young man with a newfound sense of what’s right. First up when he gets out of Rancho is to get out of his gang, too. Then will come high school and college, dreams propelled by his budding desire to be a lawyer. The ladies cooked a pasta meal for the 15 or so young men and their social workers and other Rancho staffers. And they brought gifts – games to share, plus sweat shirts, jackets, socks, candy and toothbrushes – the things luckier moms lovingly wrap and place under the Christmas tree. “A lot of kids don’t get to see unconditional love – these complete strangers doing something for them,” said Andy Shlapak, a lead group worker. Some come from traditional families, but many are from shattered homes, have a parent in prison or they’ve been knocked about the foster system, social worker Melissa Miller said. CHATSWORTH – It’s a curious mix: these smiling church ladies glowing in festive Christmas sweaters and these kids – some of them simple troublemakers, some of them adolescent felons. But somehow it’s quite natural, other kids’ moms and grandmas sitting down to chat with these pint-size criminals – sharing, laughing, confiding and simply celebrating the season of good will. Wednesday night was the annual Christmas party at Rancho San Antonio where guild members from Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in nearby Northridge threw a feast for these boys who are serving time away from home for infractions that range from truancy to weapons charges. “These are nice people, they’re doing this for us and we don’t actually deserve it,” said 15-year-old Jason, arrested a year ago for carrying a gun. “I think they’re great. “A lot are products of their environment,” Miller said. “They come here and they grow and flourish, but they have to decide how things will turn out for them.” Fifteen-year-old Jack’s mother has been in and out of his life. At 6, he went to foster care. He lived for a time with his mother in Louisiana, but after Hurricane Katrina demolished his adopted hometown, he headed back to L.A. At 14, he robbed a guy of his cell phone and cash so he could buy drugs. He said he was touched by the support coming from people who genuinely care that his Christmas is happy. “It means a lot to me. I never had that before,” he said.” A brick of a kid with determination in his eyes, Jack said his focus now is to do what it takes to play football for the University of Southern California. “If people like this, who don’t know you, will support you, it helps you realize you can turn around,” he said. “You can do whatever you decide you want to do.” Before sitting down to eat, the group held hands in an enormous circle, these baby-faced boys on the verge of second – or third – chances, intermingling with a crew of church ladies and a sprinkling of social workers. They prayed together, more in gratitude for what they have rather than despair for the cruel curves life can throw at a young boy. Virginia Houghton, dressed in red, sat at the end of one of three banquet tables and chatted with a couple of boys. She looked them in the eye, and they returned the respect. “It means so much to them, but it means so much to us, too,” she said. “Everyone has troubles. We’re old – that’s what they think – but they know we really care. They’re at such a vulnerable age.” “How’s the food here?” Houghton asked 13-year-old Matthew, who got caught selling marijuana at school at age 11. He shrugged. “Sometimes it’s OK.” “My daughter is in boarding school,” she told him. “She complains about the food. All she’ll eat is cheese, cheese, cheese. She’s going to come home for Christmas.” “She’s lucky,” said Jason. How old is she, another Jason asks. The daughter turned 18 in October, the same month as Jason II’s birthday. The night proved a dual celebration for 13-year-old Jose, haloed by a mass of black curls atop his head. Jose’s grown some 4 inches since he arrived at Rancho a month after he turned 12, a kid who had one problem after another in school and faced several suspensions before a judge finally stepped in. This week he heads home to East Los Angeles, to his mom and four brothers and a new sense of determination. “I’m going to show my family I can do good,” said Jose, who aspires now to be a social worker – like a lot of kids here who dream for themselves what they see in the role models who are helping them turn around. These Rancho kids share regret, hope and drive. All say they’re learning responsibility and many say it’s special attention like Wednesday night’s party that shows them a lot of people – people they don’t even know – are rooting for their success. At 14, Damontre has the body of a football player. He would have been on the field this past year at high school, but instead plays at Rancho after his arrest for gun possession. “I think it’s pretty nice that they care, that they come out and do this because they don’t have to. I just want to say thank you,” Damontre said. “I just want to say thank you because they don’t even know me.” [email protected] 661-257-5251160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!