Helping teens

Marvin Neal

Photo by Deidre Pike

Marvin Neal, 49, has spent 15 years “doing church” for teens incarcerated at Wittenberg Hall, a juvenile detention facility in Reno. It’s easy for him to relate to the young people there. Neal had been in trouble with the law himself—experimenting with drugs as a teenager, turning to armed robbery after losing his job. These days, Neal has a new vision—the Sierra Nevada Teen Ranch, a group home for at-risk kids age 9 to 17. Neal and his supporters have their eyes on an 80-acre parcel of land in Palomino Valley. To raise funds, the group’s holding a dinner featuring former Oakland Raiders running back Napolean Kaufman. The event starts at 7 p.m. Feb. 21 at the Atlantis Casino Resort. Tickets start at $50; $75 tickets include dinner and a reception with Kaufman. Call 789-2625.

How did the idea for a teen ranch come about?

The ranch idea came out of the work we do at Wittenberg. I’ve seen a lot of those kids come to the Lord. We see them come back to church Sunday after Sunday, and then they come to a Bible study on Wednesday. All this is voluntary. They don’t have to come to church. They just come.

How many kids at Wittenberg attend the church services?

About 15 years ago, it was only about 15-20 kids. Now it’s 45 to 50. This past Sunday, there were more than I’d ever seen. When we got there, they said, “There’s a lot of kids in there waiting for you.” I think there were 57 kids.

Why do you think they keep coming?

There’s an interest. There’s a hunger there in those kids. We see them responding to the word. We believe if we had more time with them, we could seriously impact their lives.

How much money do you need?

They want $200,000 for the land. We have about $70,000.

What will the ranch be like?

We want to provide a minimum of four homes, each with house parents and up to eight to 10 kids. We’ll have an accredited school, vocational training, individual and group counseling and, gosh, as much recreation as we can put our hands on. A number of people have offered horses for an equestrian program. And we want a ropes course. That goes a long way toward developing teamwork. … On the tail end of the program, what we’d like to do is build transitional housing. Then we’d help them get jobs or go to college if they want to, or get into the military. So they’re not just kicked out without any place to go or anyone to turn to.

How would you pay operating costs?

We’d be a licensed group home, contracting with the county and state. We want to provide an alternative to what’s out there. … We see that kids want an environment that they can thrive in.