On a bright Sunny morning on the first Saturday of July, Gene and Marianne Fountain presented a sizable donation of $1,500, proceeds from the Natural Solutions Rattlesnake Aversion Dog Training they hosted in June, to the One Spade Youth Packers (OSYP) organization at the home of OSYP President Reid Hopkins in Kernville. Hopkins and his wife Eileen founded the OSYP in 1995 after volunteering for years at the Pyle's Boys' Camp because he wanted to continue working with at-risk youth in a positive and meaningful way, turning his home ranch into a home base for the organization.
The goal of the OSYP is to take at-risk youth, boys and girls from ages 9 to 17, in the Kern River Valley and develop both character and leadership skills, including personal responsibility, teamwork, sportsmanship, ethics, honesty, discipline and dedication by working with mules and each other. The program seeks to teach the kids the importance of setting goals and working to attain those goals, showing the value of hard work and how it all translates into self-confidence, self-esteem and success that can carry them forward into adulthood.
The OSYP's efforts culminate in their annual trip to the "Bishop Mule Days Celebration," held the week leading up to Memorial Day in May. In it, the kids compete both as a team and individuals against other youth organizations and adults in close to forty events over the course of the week. "They really depend on each other up there," says Yvonne Pickerell, OSYP's main coordinator. "My main job is to wrangle the kids," she smiles. Many of the grueling events the OSYP compete in at Bishop may not be familiar to those who have never worked with mules and mule teams, but those who have know such things as Box Hitch, Diamond Hitch, Single Stake Race, Pack Scramble, Pack Contest, Packer's and Gambler's Choice Obstacle Courses, Trail Class dressage-style event, Barrel Racing, Pole Bending and Run/Ride/Lead present a real challenge.
Especially mentally and physically demanding are the driving events, which include Youth Driving, Farm Class, where the kids have to maneuver pre-1910 farm equipment, Hitch Class and the Master Teamster Challenge. These competitions are "kind of serious business," Pickerell says, because there is much more precision involved. And, keep in mind, these are kids wrangling big mules and bigger equipment in high-pressure, timed events. The team's best drivers at the 2017 competition were 15 year-old Kirk "Hoss" Slagle, Lauretta Pickerell, 13, Forrest Manning, Jr., who, at 16, is the oldest in the group, and 10 year-old Ed Bowen, the youngest. This year, the OSYP came home with 38 ribbons, and member James Hollingsworth was named Reserve World Packer Youth Champion.
Since joining the OSYP, Hollingsworth has found a whole new life direction. His ultimate goal after finishing high school is to be a packer for the Marine Corps, and he takes his first step to fulfilling his dream this summer. He was just accepted into the rigorous Devil Pups program at Camp Pendleton, which begins later this month.
Throughout the year, the OSYP do an enormous amount of volunteer work, including assisting various Rotary organizations with their projects and events, including the recent "Santa Clarita Cowboy Festival," and participating in parades and demonstrations. Several current members have received the honor of being named Toys for Tots "Volunteer of the Year," which requires at least 200 hours of volunteer work in just one calendar year. Fundraising is also an important focus for the group because they provide year-round care and feeding for almost thirty mules, maintain their equipment, incur travel expenses, "and it really adds up," says Pickerell. Marianne Fountain says, "This is such a worthwhile local organization, and when we found out about the great work they do, we just wanted to help as much as we could."
If you'd like to see the One Spade Youth Packers in action, you can check them out at the Kern River Valley Historical Society's general meeting, July 25, at the Senior Center in Lake Isabella. And, if you would like to help the kids continue their efforts, you can make a tax-deductible donation (they are a designated 501c3 under chuck Richards' California Recreation Foundation) through the OSYP website:
Non-monetary donations such as feed for the mules, horse/mule drawn farming equipment, bridles, harnesses, and the likeare also gratefully accepted, and may be sent to the Packers' home base ranch at 9765 Sierra Way in Kernville or by contacting the group through their website.