Camp Gonzales shines in Solar Cup
May 18, 2011
They came. They built. And by the time last weekend’s Ninth Annual Solar Cup boat race was finished, the scrappy teen underdogs from Camp David Gonzales had conquered, too.
Profiled here last week as they were preparing to become the first team of incarcerated teenagers ever to enter the scientifically challenging contest, the Camp Gonzales kids, led by teacher Ty Kastendiek of the Los Angeles County Office of Education, ended up with a second-place finish in the sprint in the Rookie Division, and 12th place overall among 40 teams of students, most of whom—like the winners—attended suburban high schools.
Earlier, they took first place in a preliminary round involving the creation of a public service ad on water conservation. The team had spent some seven months building a solar-powered skiff, which they then raced for two days at Lake Skinner near Hemet.
For the teenagers, the glory was less in the race than in completing the project. The group that built the “Miss Ann” knew from the start that they would not be the group that raced it because their sentences at Camp Gonzales, a Los Angeles County probation camp in the hills above Malibu, didn’t coincide with the school year. Most had never been in a boat, let alone built one, and even the most mundane contest rules—attending a mandatory boat-building workshop, for example—posed procedural hurdles.
But as each challenge was met, Kastendiek says, the students gained dignity and maturity. For him, he says, the real triumphs came in random, unguarded moments: Watching an 18-year-old named Richard who had never steered a boat “take full control” and order him to stop talking and help get their boat out of the water. Or listening to the suddenly child-like laughter of his young probationers as they sat around a campfire eating moon pies. Or hearing Christian, one of his liveliest charges, muse that “he liked the endurance race more than the sprint, because the sprint was over too fast and it was beautiful to be out on the lake for a while by himself.”
At one point, Kastendiek says, their boat hit a mechanical snag that cost the team the endurance portion of the contest. “It was a repair,” he says, “that normally would have taken 40 minutes.”
But, in what for him was one of the most gratifying moments of the weekend, he says, one of his students, a 16-year-old aspiring electrician named Marco, looked at him and just said, “Mr. Ty, relax—we got this.” In less than 25 minutes, as bystanders shouted advice from the sidelines, the “Miss Ann” was back in the race again.
“The students demonstrated dedication and the ability to solve problems and overcome adversity,” said John R. Mundy, general manager of the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District, which sponsored the probation camp team and congratulated both the students and L.A. County Office of Education.
Kastendiek, who was only able to take three of the more than 20 team members to the actual boat race, says he hopes to enter the Metropolitan Water District-sponsored event again next year. But in any case, he says, the project was deeply gratifying.
“We set a goal,” he says, “we did the journey, and the final outcome was not decided on Sunday, but hopefully in the lives of the young men who had a chance to shine in a new arena, to believe in themselves in a different way and to touch the other participants who got to know them.”