It’s the perfect metaphor: Headstrong youth take on creatures even harder to control than themselves. That’s what One Spade Youth Packers is all about.
Located in Kern County, but drawing from all areas, co-founder Reid Hopkins spoke at SCV Rotary last month about the non-profit and the adolescents whose lives have been changed by the program.
“It’s a leadership and character development program for at-risk and/or underprivileged kids,” he explained. “They learn how to harness and drive teams of mules and learn how to hook them to various farm implements.”
But if you’re thinking, “It’s not your grandma’s training program,” you’re wrong. It actually is.
“We have a comprehensive collection of ancient packing equipment. George Washington packed in the Revolutionary War just like these kids are doing today,” Hopkins said. “Nothing’s changed and there (are) very few things now that haven’t changed in the last 200 years. But packing has stayed the same. The way a family went into the back country in 1890 we do the same way now.”
There are no paid salaries – it’s operated solely by donations and volunteer driven.
“The program is no cost to the family,” Hopkins said. “Most of the kids, their folks don’t have the money to do this.”
What “this” entails for the 10-15 adolescents who participate is a yearlong commitment to everything from planting fields to riding horses.
“We hit ‘em pretty hard with feeding and care for the animals. They learn the diseases and health issues they have,” Hopkins said. “For a lot of kids that’s the first responsibility they’ve ever had. They’re actually held accountable for the animals.”
The teens have to maintain a “C” average and they can’t have severe attitude problems.
“A lot of the kids we get have some issues at home,” he said. “A lot of them come from single parent only situations; they’ve maybe been in trouble, but nothing criminal. Some are right on the fence and they can go either way.”
One Spade Youth Packers has changed the lives of 350 or more teens in 22 years of operations.
“A lot of these kids don’t want to play football or baseball,” he said. “A lot of them have never been on a team of anything and they learn the value of that. It’s kind of a unique program.”
This year there are four girls and eight boys who spend every other weekend and most of spring break at the Kern County Ranch of Reid and Eileen Hopkins, who founded the organization together.
“It’s comprehensive. They have to learn a lot and learn it quickly,” he described. “They learn how to put pack saddles on and tie loads on. … They learn a lot of anatomy and physiology, how much water and hay they need a day.”
The whole program culminates in bringing the teens to Mule Days in Bishop, Calif. in May, where they compete for world titles in a range of events.
“They compete in the farming class, using the team of mules pulling an implement,” Hopkins explained. “All the implements we have are pre-1915. The kids kind of get a window into the past.”
They also compete in packing contests and the “Teamster Challenge.”
“It’s really a difficult competition,” Hopkins said. “Most of the people they’re up against have 20-30 years of experience.”
There is a trails class, obstacle course and packing scrambles, plus events like “Musical Tires” and the “Dolly Parton Race.” The kids get to ride in the largest parade of its kind as well – another rare opportunity.
What are the One Spade core values?
“Honesty is number one,” Hopkins explained. “We teach them that these gray areas … they do not exist. You know in your gut, that little voice tells you if it’s right or wrong.”
Building self-confidence is another aim of the program, and teaching the kids to set goals and complete them.
“Self-reliance, self-confidence, personal responsibility – you have to own what you do, good or bad,” said Hopkins, who retired from 39 years in law enforcement. “We emphasize they can control a lot of what happens in their life.”
One Spade Youth Packers exists because of Hopkins’ own background. He suffered “a horrible childhood” and an “awful, awful home life,” as he describes it. He became a runaway, but found his way back, even graduating from college.
“There were people who stepped in to help me at critical times,” he recalled. “I realize the importance and the monumental impact they had on me.”
He sees a lot of familiar symptoms in the adolescents in the program.
“I went through the same thing myself,” he said. “Kids are pretty perceptive. They size you up in a heartbeat.”
What happens after the program?
Some kids come back for more than one year, even as many as five years, often helping to mentor the younger boys and girls. And after Mule Days they go on actual pack trips, to the Golden Trout Wilderness, for instance, so they can see how it all applies.
And even more lasting, Reid and Eileen use the program to give some a leg up with college and career training.
“We sent two of them through horseshoeing school. Some go to work for the National Park Service packing,” he said. “Over the years we’ve got a pretty large support group — we can do a lot of good in helping them head in the right direction.”
It is this support group that keeps the doors open at One Spade Youth Packers.
“We have a volunteer crew and I don’t want to underemphasize them,” he said. “It makes it work. They help with the cooking and help with the kids, (some who) are accomplished horse people who help with the kids riding.”
Financially, it is donations from multiple groups and individuals that keep the program alive.
“My wife and I, some years, have finished in the red and other years finished in the black,” Hopkins said. “Rotary, the Masons, the Exchange Club, several Bakersfield veterinarians – everybody chips in every year and we raise the money each and every year to do this. Folks are generous. Some folks have the time, not the money, and we’ll take all the help we can get.”
Reid and Eileen Hopkins get the satisfaction of watching a brotherhood and sisterhood emerge among participating teens, who learn to depend on each other.
“We get ‘em ready to compete in the world. It’s really rewarding to see them metamorphosize,” he explained. “You really get a chance to mentor them, get them going in the right direction. It’s the hope that they’ll become more productive members of society.”
To contact One Spade Youth Packers call 760-223-1612 or visit Onespadeyouthpackers.org.