The Oakgrove retreat program at Venice High has been changing lives for 45 years

By Carl Kozlowski

After racial tensions exploded into riots in Watts and Detroit, Venice High School chemistry and sociology teacher Dale Stuck felt called to influence a more positive future. In 1972, Stuck launched the Oakgrove peer mentorship weekend retreat program to address race relations on campus and teach his diverse student body that they share a common humanity.

Forty five years and thousands of alumni later, it’s still going strong.

Building off trust exercises and group discussions as a way for students to bond outside of school, Oakgrove encourages students to speak openly and without fear of judgment about a wide range of hot-button issues: discrimination, family problems, abuse, drugs and alcohol, death, sexuality and gender identity among them, along with purely positive sharing of participants’ dreams and aspirations.

This past Saturday, dozens of past and present Oakgrove participants came together at the outdoor education nonprofit Wildwoods Foundation’s L.A. headquarters to share memories and raise much-needed funds to keep the program affordable for students. Wildwoods stepped in to save the program amid LAUSD policy changes and budget cuts in 2008, and the foundation has since expanded Oakgrove to include the Miguel Contreras Learning Complex near downtown.

“I’ll never forget my first Oakgrove retreat and being asked to sit in the middle of a circle while everyone around me shared positive thoughts about me,” recalled Nicole Romanak, a 2007 Venice High graduate who now teaches at Miguel Contreras and coordinates the school’s Oakgrove program. “I was told ‘You don’t really talk much, but when you do it’s important,’ and that was a huge boost to my self-esteem. That was big for me in terms of personal growth, to get that positive feedback.”

Venice High alum Joan Mateo-Bartoli noted that the Oakgrove program helped her overcome extreme shyness during her first retreat in 1991. In the years since, she’s encouraged family and friends to send their children through the program.

“I was a really shy Asian-American kid in the early ’90s, and Oakgrove broke me out of my shell and gave me the opportunity to speak out and have people accept me for who I am,” Mateo-Bartoli said. “What keeps me coming back is that the program is still running, and I want other kids to have the same opportunity.”

An Oakgrove scholarship fund helps low-income Venice High students pay the $200 fee for two nights of camping in the Angeles National Forest. About 45 attended a retreat this fall, and more than 60 are expected to attend another next spring.

Because many Contreras students face greater economic challenges, that school’s program takes place during one overnight session in Griffith Park.

Both retreats include group discussions, hug circles and an exercise known as “step out,” in which students hold hands to form a circle and take turns stepping into the middle as a leader asks an array of identifying questions.

“They might ask if anyone comes from a family of divorce, if they’ve ever cheated on a test, or are homosexual,” explained Romanak. “These are all things that make you different, but you see others in your same situation and, at the end, you all step back and hold hands and find acceptance. High school students don’t have a good perception of their surroundings, and this helps broaden their perspective.”

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