VIDA (Vital Intervention Directional Alternatives)

VIDA: Academy-Style Program Changes Lives for the Better

What does the VIDA program do? Nothing short of steering youths away from crime toward a positive life path, recognizing each youth’s unique needs and circumstances, and building them into responsible, productive, happy and confident adults.

It’s all in a day’s work for the 23-deputy Vital Intervention Directional Alternative program.

The deputies take great pride in their 16-week academy-style program, which serves non-violent, medium- to high-risk youths ages 11 to 17, with the goal of setting them on a crime-free path toward responsible adulthood. Many come from broken homes or lack parental involvement, and are often referred via courts and other government agencies.

“We have about an 80 percent success rate,” says Sgt. Mark Cripe, who heads up the VIDA program. “A year out, eight out of 10 don’t get in trouble with law enforcement again.”

Further, many VIDA graduates provide inspirational success stories. “We have kids coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq, and they’re war heroes,” Cripe said.

VIDA includes individual and family counseling, career education, physical activities, a career fair called Dreams Day, and esteem-building events including the VIDA Games. Through an arrangement with the Chicago School of Psychology in Los Angeles, the youths receive professional-level counseling from doctoral students. VIDA programs are operated at eight locations countywide: Lancaster, Palmdale, Altadena, East L.A., Lakewood, Century Station, South L.A., and Santa Clarita.

The first half of the program is spent “breaking down” the kids, figuring out what makes them tick and bluntly illustrating the stark realities about a life of crime — including a visit to a county jail. The second half is spent “building up” the kids, guiding them toward positive life choices, leading to a graduation celebration.

“The opportunity to impact people’s lives — I think every deputy comes into this department with the hope, that’s what you do,” says Deputy Stephen Rust. “As grand as that sounds, I think most of us want to create societal change. Criminals typically have a long rap sheet, so if we take a kid who is just starting out with crime, and we can prevent that from continuing, how many crimes have we prevented?”

Rust says VIDA deputies often form special bonds with the youths who complete the program.

“Most of the time we are the first people who have come along and said what we mean and do what we say,” Rust says. “I would say 98 percent of the kids come here hating us, and the ones who make it to the end love us.”

One of his former VIDA students called him this past year and invited him to attend her graduation. “She’s graduating from high school and going into the Marine Corps,” Rust says. “She called and said, ‘Look, I made it! I’m doing good.’”

VIDA deputies have learned to figure out what makes the youths tick, and help them resolve the issues affecting them.

“We’re like bootleg psychologists here,” Rust says. “Everything we do is based on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and cognitive behavior intervention. It basically boils down to one thing: You have to find out where that kid is hurting and address that hurt, whether it’s parents who are uninvolved, parents who have died or are incarcerated, or kids who were physically or sexually abused. Once we figure out what is hurting, we’ll implement a program to help them get past that.”

“The counseling is a very important component of our program,” says Deputy Thomas Spiegle. “A kid hooked on meth is not the core issue. The core issue is, ‘What got the kid to start using meth?’”

Spiegle, who likens most law enforcement activity to “stringing beads without any knot at the end of the rope,” says the key is communication.

“We always tell our parents, ‘Listen to what your kids say,’” Spiegle says. “That’s where I think VIDA really shines — we will listen to the kids, and we will always do what we say we will do.”

The kids come from all socioeconomic groups, too — everything from inner-city kids to those whose parents are financially well off. VIDA deputies specialize in recognizing the unique needs of each of them.

“We see a lot of post-traumatic stress disorder in our kids,” Spiegle says. “We have kids who have slept on the floor because they are worried about stray bullets.”

Others are known to carry several different shirts in their backpacks, because they go through different neighborhoods on their way home from school, and the color of one’s shirt can mean the difference between being a target and not being one.

At the other end of the spectrum, Spiegle tells the story of a youth who, upon enrolling in VIDA, was convinced his affluent parents didn’t care what happened to him. “On the outside looking in, you think, ‘You have everything,’” Spiegle said. “The kid said, ‘My mom and dad love our horse more than they love me.’”

Whatever the situation — whether it’s a kid from a gang-infested neighborhood or one from the suburbs who has turned to drugs or found trouble to seek attention — Spiegle says the reward of being a VIDA deputy is in seeing the positive results.

“I enjoy ‘fixing’ families. I have parents who still send me cookies, and kids who have grown up and they call me to reminisce,” Spiegle said. “With our kids, I see how the story ends. I have a direct impact on how a child’s future ends up playing out.”