One of the movies on my “must-see” list is “City Slickers.” It’s a
great comedy about city boys vacationing on a ranch to learn how to be
cowboys. Recently, I had the opportunity to visit a similar ranch in Los
Angeles County. As someone who’s never been on horseback, I’ve always
been intrigued by the image of a cowboy wearing a brimmed hat and boots
and riding on a horse.

Volunteers at Inner City Slickers spend time with inner-city
youth, teaching them about the responsibilities of ranching and of living.

While I wasn’t quite brave enough to take my first horse ride, I did
meet with Dean Rappa, a
cowboy and sponsor of the Awareness Foundation, which is also known as

Inner City
Dean told me about his role at the non-profit organization that shares his devotion to “bringing in inner-city kids and young adults to a place where the color of one’s skin, nationality and beliefs hold no boundaries. It is a ‘down-home’ ministry that founder Michael McMeel has successfully brought to this community to have at-risk kids meet up with ‘cowboys’ where we can show them how we respect people as well as our surroundings,” he said.

So I decided to pay a visit to Inner City Slickers, which is located in the Soledad Canyon Area in Santa Clarita. After all, Los Angeles County is my community, and I wanted to see how these kids are being helped. I jumped on the 210 freeway and headed north to the 14. Turning onto the 14, I was at the top of a mountain, looking down on the valley. It was so beautiful that I turned off my air conditioning and opened the windows. I may originally be from a different country, but I detected a familiar rural smell.

Horses are central figures at the ranch, and they began making a lot of noise when I arrived. Maybe they had never seen an Asian-American cowboy-in-training before. Michael McMeel, the founder of Inner City Slickers, told me his history and the history of his amazing ranch.

McMeel arrived in Los Angeles in 1973 from Denver, Colo. Shortly after his move, he pursued a music career, touring with the rock group Three Dog Night for three years and recording two albums with them. He left Three Dog Night in 1977, and began an acting career, making appearances in popular television programs and a few movies. Inspired by the film “City Slickers,” McMeel went on to create his own real-life version for inner-city kids.

“The inner city is a room — a place with no windows — where children are often afraid of dreaming and reaching for their future,” he told me. “Dreams come from vision, passion, clarity, trust, opportunity, and Inner City Slickers is a vista of hope for a more fulfilled life. A weekend of summer is their window. In fact, it will be a weekend wonderland that our children will never forget!”

The program is funded through corporate sponsorship, volunteers and private donations. “We chose this program because the Old West symbolizes strength, perseverance and hard work. We want to open our children’s minds and hearts to see past the inner city and inspire our young people to create their own future — to experience something beautiful, effect their lives.”

McMeel is chairman of the non-profit organization, which is open to children ranging in age from 10 to 17. To become involved, each child has to share something about himself with the staff either through an essay, a poem or rap lyrics. Kids share about where they see themselves in 5 years, what they want to become or about their relationship with a family member or friend, McMeel said. “The most important element is that it be personal,” he added. “This will help us to understand and get to know them better as individuals.”

“Our slickers will learn what it is like to be a cowboy, kindness, dependability, keeping your word, responsibility and ethics and a moral code,” he said. “They also learn how to sit on a horse, rope, groom and feed. These kids discover what it is like to trust and respect the horses, themselves and each other.”

Dean really believes in the Old West program. “We give these kids the opportunity to speak as well as challenge them to truly think and figure out why they have made certain choices in their lives and to understand the consequences that have come of it,” he said. “So many of us, both young and old, have what is known as a knee-jerk reaction and temptation to things that has put us in juvenile hall or jail at a time in one’s life were an important roll model was never to be found. We are only one of many different youth organizations that have stepped up to plate to help try to get kids to see that doing good looks and feels better and is appreciated much more in society.”

The men and women at Inner City Slickers have totally devoted their time to the at-risk boys and girls in their community. Santa Clarita and the Soledad Canyon area are so blessed to have this organization. Volunteers there are nurses, chiropractors, psychologists, social therapists, police officers, fire fighters, actors, producers, stunt men, truck drivers, accountants, attorneys, horse breeders and trainers, school teachers and professional cowboys. This part of Los Angeles County is the last of its kind. It is a hidden pocket of American history and natural resources. Most people in the United States are not aware of how beautiful it is or that it even exists.

But, ladies and gentlemen, it is at risk. I was stunned to learn that they are fighting an environmental battle to keep their oasis. A concrete company is on the verge of being approved for a very large mining operation right in the valley that the locals say will have detrimental affects on the ranch and nearby residents. The company mines aggregate — gravel and sand — used in construction, which is booming in Southern California. I decided to let the people speak for themselves.

Jenny Larson is a wife and mother of two small children. She lives with her family just a mile-and-a-half from the proposed mining site. “We moved here about three years ago with dreams for our children — good schools, a safe place to ride their bikes, participate in sporting events, play outside with friends and to grow up happy and healthy. Now that dream is in jeopardy because of the Transit Mixed Concrete Mining Project, recently approved by the Bureau of Land Management,” she wrote to me. “Even though this project has been in the works for many years, none of the local residents were made aware of the proposed behemoth until about two years ago.”

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to hold a hearing on the mining project on Jan. 23, 2001, but Mrs. Larson fears federal mineral rights may supersede local initiatives.

“How can the BLM, ‘whose mission is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations,’ approve something so environmentally detrimental in such close proximity to so many people’s homes and schools?” she asked. “I have written to Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt to ask this same question but have not received a response yet.”

Gail Ortiz, public information officer for the City of Santa Clarita, explained the environmental effects of the project. “The TMC mining plan’s second phase will generate five-axle trucks every minute 24-hours per day on already heavily burdened freeways, adding to traffic and pollution,” she said. “Degradation of Santa Clarita Valley’s air quality will occur through the significant impact of dirt and dust generated by this project. This will greatly affect children and those with breathing problems. The project will use ground water totaling several hundred acre feet a yard. And this could impact ground water availability in the Santa Clarita Valley, especially those who are dependent upon wells. The City of Santa Clarita is joined by every local school district, water agency, town council and area homeowners associations in vehement opposition to this project.”

If given final approval, TMC will mine 37 million cubic yards of aggregate over 20 years, Ortiz said. “The BLM has no experience in managing a project of this magnitude. The largest mining project the BLM has in the U.S. is 6 million cubic yards,” she said.

According to weekly columnist Pauline Harde, of the local publication, “The Signal,” at least one additional mining corporation wants to work in the same area. “If TMC gets an approval to mine on their 44 acres, Vulcan Industries is already standing by to get their approval to mine on their 1,000 acres!” she wrote. “And a couple of other mining companies are also waiting in the wings. We are fighting a mining consortium, not only TMC. Existing communities must be treated with respect and consideration by the government of the United States of America as we move into the twenty-first century.”

I’m curious. Al Gore, an avid and outspoken environmentalist, has been vice president of the United States for eight years. Yet his administration’s Interior Department Secretary Bruce Babbit has said nothing regarding the situation in Santa Clarita. In an election year, this seems like the perfect issue for Gore to use in his campaign. Do not forget, Mr. Gore, that the county of Los Angeles is the biggest in the United States with a huge population of voters.

And what about the local politicians? As a former businessman and so-called fat-cat donor, I wonder how much money has been donated by these concrete companies to the county supervisors’ campaigns. I know that’s how it works — I have been one of those donors.

Inner City Slickers is using the beautiful land in that valley to heal children and train them to be responsible adults. The volunteers there are instrumental in training the heroes of the future. But a giant company comes along with all its power and influence and may be able to put a stop to the good work being done for these kids in the name of commerce. Construction costs will be higher if the valley can’t be mined, they say. Well I want to know how much these kids are worth.

God bless this land of ours, and God bless the kids of Inner City Slickers.

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