Formerly homeless, brothers enjoy days on ranch
- Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM
- Star Tribune
- July 16, 2011 - 9:39 PM
Antwon Williams had a pressing question before jumping into a People Serving People (PSP) van heading to Sturgeon Lake, Minn. "Do they have bumper cars there?"
Well, no. Turns out he didn't miss them, what with the cow and turtle, climbing wall and nearby water park, tubing and bowling. And hot dogs.
Antwon, 8, and his brother, Rayshawn Perry, 13, were hand-picked for a special treat last weekend: four days on 200 beautiful acres housing the Ranch, a mentoring program near Duluth for fatherless boys (www.theranchny.com). For 30 years, New York native and Minnesota transplant Dan Celentano has flown homeless boys from the Bronx to his ranch in the winter and summer for four or five days of fresh air, fun and freedom to act like kids. All of it free of charge. This is the first time Minnesota boys have participated.
"They are really good boys," said PSP children's activity coordinator Joseph Milius, who was impressed with the brothers' poise and discipline. He thought they could benefit from seeing "a larger world out there." Their mom, Luciana Smith, was happy they got the chance. "I was excited. Go!" she said.
The family was housed temporarily at PSP's family shelter in downtown Minneapolis and has since moved into a home in north Minneapolis. But living with uncertainty year in and out is tough on kids, leading some to question their self-worth.
"Being homeless or living in poverty, many times kids blame themselves, especially the teenagers," Celentano said. "Someone telling them they have value really does carry weight."
Celentano's program falls somewhere between summer camp and guidance counseling. He uses activities to get kids to open up, face their fears, see their potential. The long weekend included a visit to a farm, wood-chopping and a boat ride on Lake Superior.
"It's very subtle stuff," Celentano said. Rayshawn, for example, couldn't get past his fear of the climbing wall. "I can't do this," he kept saying. Celentano went up the ladder behind him, and gently hooked him up. Finally Rayshawn took the leap, climbing up the wall, then down safely, then up again.
"You're planting a seed," he said, "that maybe I'm not as bad as my situation dictates."
Another key component of the ranch is positive role-modeling. Celentano is assisted this summer by Nelson Garcia, a south Bronx native and graduate of the ranch program who is working his way through college.
In addition to the program, Celentano does one-on-one mentoring with at-risk kids. During the school year, he speaks around the state to high school students about depression and bullying (www.choicesforteens.com).
Celentano had been trying for years to get local nonprofits to suggest kids for his program, without any luck. Then he caught a recent KARE-11 news segment about People Serving People and thought, "What the heck?" He called PSP, was connected to Milius and the wheels started turning.
"We have 200 children at our shelter on any given day and many of these children haven't set foot outside the city limits," said PSP development coordinator Lauren Rimestad. "We want them to smell what nature smells like, get their feet dirty, ride a horse. How could we say no?"
Luciana "is amazing," Rimestad said, "The family just needs support. Things are tough for them and the boys could really benefit."
They did. Upon arriving home, Antwon rushed to his mom to show her the gold medal he had won for the climbing wall. Was he homesick? Did he miss his mom? No. And no.
Milius, who is moving to Colorado later this month, noticed "quite a bit of difference" between driving the boys up and back. "At first, they were withdrawn and kind of nervous about what was going on," he said. "When I picked them up, they seemed extremely enthusiastic and much more engaged. They gave me a big hug and Rayshawn, in particular, seemed like he had more confidence in himself. He stood up straighter than when he first got there.
"I'm pretty excited about that."
Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350 email@example.com
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