They are “survivors of the system,” Russ Kusama says of the six boys living at the Progress Ranch group home in East Davis.
All between the ages of 6 and 11, the boys have come here primarily because they were unable to make it in foster care. One comes from a failed adoption. All are emotionally troubled.
“Every one of them right now,” Kusama said, “is in a situation where they will never go back to a family member, and they know that.”
So this residential group home for troubled boys up to age 12 is, in a way, like an orphanage, he noted.
“But I like to think of them as survivors,” Kusama said.
Kusama has dedicated the last 30 years of his life to these boys, having served as director of Progress Ranch for three decades.
“It’s been very rewarding,” he said, “very exciting and never boring.”
But he’s 65 now, and would like to spend more time with his family and his grandchildren, so he will be stepping down at the end of the year, turning the reins over to someone new — someone who will have very big shoes to fill.
That person, Kusama said, “has to religiously care about these clients. You have to care about them like your own kids.”
It’s something those who’ve worked with Kusama at Progress Ranch say he has always done.
Barbara Sommer, president of the Progress Ranch board of directors, says many of the young boys who arrive here have a very difficult initial adjustment, testing the staff in every possible way.
“But Russ doesn’t give up on them,” Sommer said. “He has resilience. And that’s something the new director will need.”
For Kusama, it’s a matter of following a pretty simple credo: Never give up.
“Any youngster we accept,” he said, “we have to do whatever is possible to help him succeed and never give up.”
And though there are boys who come through here who are very, very troubled, with very uncertain futures, “you learn to live with it, and change your expectations,” Kusama said.
Progress Ranch has been around since 1976, first in a house on Oak Avenue, and for a while, in two places: on both Oak Avenue and at the East Davis location, which Kusama himself opened in 1981. A few years back, they downsized to just the current location.
Funding comes from federal, state and county government sources, but the generosity of the local community — both in terms of donations and volunteers — always has been critical.
The Unitarian Church, Poleline Baptist Church and Discovery Christian Church all have been supportive over the years, as has the Rotary Club of Davis, Kusama said.
Just last weekend, volunteers from the South Davis office of the U.S. Forest Service came out and installed raised garden beds in the facility’s back yard, with a plot for each of the boys to plant vegetables.
As the boys returned home from school on Tuesday, a couple of them hurried out to check on their plants, and to ask if they needed watering.
Life here is governed by a system of levels, with the boys’ daily behavior determining whether they move up a level, resulting in more freedom and privileges, or down a level. All but one is attending public school, and their behavior at school also affects their levels at home.
They receive one-on-one tutoring from UC Davis volunteers four days a week, regularly see a therapist and social worker, and even participate in community activities and sports.
Right now, an 11-year-old is on a local lacrosse team, Kusama said, while two other boys are on soccer teams.
Kusama oversees a staff of 10 full-time and part-time employees, including two site managers. They have a half-time social worker, a therapist and a psychiatrist who comes in as needed, as well as interns and volunteers, all of whom take care of everything from driving the boys to school and back, cooking, cleaning and organizing activities.
Labor, said Kusama, takes up 70 percent of the program’s budget.
The boys meanwhile, who all hail from Yolo, Solano or San Joaquin counties, live here for anywhere from several months to three years. When it’s time to leave, if they are not ready for a less restrictive setting like a foster home, they will go on to an adolescent group home.
Progress Ranch is a level 11 facility, Kusama said, which is really just a step down from a level 14 facility like FamiliesFirst on Fifth Street in Davis.
“FamiliesFirst takes youngsters for whom it’s the last stop before a lock-up facility,” Kusama explained. “They have behaviors that are beyond the care of our facility.”
Prior to coming to Progress Ranch, Kusama spent seven years working at a facility for teenage boys near Oakhurst.
The boys there came from probation or social services, and the facility seemed to have a revolving door, Kusama said, with the boys leaving, only to return again.
Progress Ranch, he said, is different.
“There’s more hope and chance with this (younger) group,” Kusama said, “because of their age.”
Sommer said board members would like to hire Kusama’s replacement by October and are actively seeking candidates right now. A job description and more information is available on the organization’s website, www.progressranch.org. For more information, contact Sommer at [email protected].
— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at [email protected] or (530) 747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy