Giving troubled kids a chance to change

Published Caption: Shannon Litz

Published Caption: Shannon Litz

The road from Highway 395 to China Spring Youth Camp/Aurora Pines is only 3 miles but seems longer as it winds through a small valley in the foothills above Gardnerville.

For more than 25 years, that road has been a lifeline for nearly 2,400 boys and girls placed at the juvenile treatment facility in times of trouble in their young lives.

From the first time he made that drive as juvenile camp services director in 1995, to his final official trip in the next few days, Steve Thaler said his focus hasn't changed.

"You've got to realize why these kids get sent here," Thaler said recently. "It's very difficult for us to change what 16 or 17 years of behavior have created. We give them every chance in the world to change or be rehabilitated. We're keeping these kids from becoming part of the state system."

The camp's vision is keeping kids safe, Thaler said.

"They come from all different backgrounds. We treat them like human beings that have been through some really bad stuff. They're really pretty good kids."

Thaler's retirement is effective Monday. He leaves behind a legacy of service for juvenile offenders he says "still are just kids" no matter what they've done to earn placement at the camp.

When Thaler came to the camp in 1995, there were 40 boys and a staff of 13, including him. The program has expanded to include 39 staff members and 58 boys and girls in two separate facilities.

China Spring, and the girls' facility Aurora Pines - which opened in 2002, accepts offenders ages 12-18 from every county except Clark County which has its own juvenile program.

The camps rely on fees from each county for placements and state funding.

"I'd like to have been able to get more money out of the state," Thaler said. "We've been cut back for eight years, since 2002. Judge (Dave) Gamble and I tried twice, in 2007 and 2009, to get a change in the funding structure. I wish we would have accomplished that."

In 2002, when State Sen. Lawrence Jacobsen lost his seat to reapportionment, the camp lost its best ally at the Legislature, Thaler said.

The late Minden Republican took the program to heart and was able to generate funding that led to expansion of the camp, Thaler said.

In 2011, Thaler is optimistic with county representatives Sen. James Settelmeyer and Assemblyman Kelly Kite. Nevada's first lady, Kathleen Sandoval, has counseled camp placements from Washoe County through her position at the Children's Cabinet in Reno.

"Our budget is tied to the state budget," Thaler said. "As they get cut, we get cut. One thing we can hang our hat on is that we never cut beds. We just deal with it."

Employees have not had a pay raise in two years, there has been a salary freeze and staff vacancies are not being filled. In addition, a 5-7 percent pay cut is under consideration.

"Everybody else picks up the job duties," Thaler said.

'New generation' takes over

What's facilitating Thaler's transition is the knowledge that two long-time colleagues - Wendy Garrison and Jeff Gorton - have been appointed by Gamble and District Judge Michael Gibbons to take over.

Garrison and Gorton were working at the camp when Thaler arrived in 1995.

"This is the new generation. I couldn't be happier," he said. "The only reason I was successful is because of them. There is not one person who does it without key players. It makes it easier to leave."

Garrison, promoted to director of juvenile camp services from youth facilities manager, said she is excited about her new position.

She became manager of Aurora Pines when the girls' section opened in 2002 and took over management of the boys' camp when Michael Beam left in the summer to become chief of the county's Department of Alternative Sentencing.

"Steve's been a great records keeper," she said. "He has a big file called 'Steve's stuff for Wendy.'"

Garrison said she's learned a lot from Thaler over the years, but appreciates the responsibility she'll have as the person in charge.

"I'm looking forward to all the fun stuff that comes with a new administration," Garrison said. "I want to make sure I am doing the right things for the right reasons."

Her transition is eased by having Gorton take over as youth facilities manager.

"Wendy and I grew up here together," he said, referring to their careers at the camp.

"I want everybody here to have the same opportunity I did. I just want everybody to feel about the facility the same way I do. It's not just a job. It's ownership. That, more than anything, is the reason why I decided to move up," Gorton said.

He was promoted from youth services case manager.

"I haven't been in administration. I was in treatment and had autonomy as case manager. I worked with everybody and was sort of a hub, managing every resident's case," Gorton said.

Garrison said she'll be learning as she goes, trying to figure out everything Thaler did, and working with the staff to take more ownership of the camp.

"I'll just kind of see what falls in my lap," she said. "I'll leave managing of the programs to Jeff."


"This is the way it's always been - teamwork," Thaler said. "All three of us have been here at least 16 years. We know the history of the camp and where the future needs to go."

Thaler said he can't leave without thanking Gamble for his support.

"Judge Gamble made is possible for this camp to survive. There's the man who knows the vision and cares about the camp, where it's going to go. He is the unsung hero. His name is written all over the place," Thaler said.

The camp has changed from a philosophy of behavior modification to a treatment facility, Thaler said.

"At the time, behavior modification worked, but the camp has been transformed to a treatment facility with an evidence-based, cognitive approach. You can't do it overnight. It's truly a treatment program. Kids come in and we change the way they think," he said.

Thaler said maybe one in 40 residents don't benefit from the opportunity.

"Kids will come back to see us. They're in uniform because they've joined the military, or they bring back their wives and kids. The success rate keeps us going," he said.

He said it can be challenging to get the kids to leave.

"We have had kids who want to stay here. They have good food, a nice room, a roof over their heads and a staff who really cares about them. Some kids are scared to go back home," Thaler said.

Gorton said he and Garrison hope to clear up the misconception that the facility is a boot camp.

"People think we house a bunch of bad kids," Garrison said.

"Or, they think we're punitive, we're just a big family," Gorton said, pointing out, "someone helped us along the way."

"We give the community back better-educated kids, kids who are better than they were when they got here," Garrison said.

Looking back at his tenure, Thaler said he never had a dull day.

"The exciting part about the camp is coming to work. Every day is different. Every day these kids are a challenge. I never had a moment of boredom," he said.

Thaler doesn't equate retirement with idleness.

He plans to devote additional time to his duties as a member of the Minden Town Board. He signed up for a digital photography class now that his weekday mornings are somewhat free. He's an active member of St. Gall Catholic Church.

And there will be more outings with his grandson and his children.

Thaler's wife, JoAnn, is judicial assistant to Gamble.

Thaler is retiring after 30 years with Douglas County including stints with the Douglas County Sheriff's Office and as a special investigator in the district attorney's office. He came to the area from the Marine Corps at age 23, on the recommendation of a friend.

He's surprised at how quickly time passed, not that he stayed in Douglas County.

"There was no doubt in my mind that I would do my 30 years in Douglas County," Thaler said. "It's just a neat place to live."


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