Michael McMeel, 57, remembers one of the first places where he gained self-confidence, learned respect and experienced magic. It was on the back of a horse in rural Colorado.
So in 1992, after widespread televised riots tore apart south-central Los Angeles, where the former rock musician was directing TV commercials, McMeel conceived an alternative to gangs and violence by giving inner-city kids that same positive experience.
“I watched L.A. burn from an office where I was working,” says the former drummer for the 1970s group Three Dog Night. “I felt a need to do something to help.”
Seeing the movie City Slickers sparked an idea for Inner City Slickers, a ranch where “the street kids” could meet “the cowboys.”
“I saw it as a place where we could instill Old West values of perseverance, responsibility, courage and hard work,” McMeel says. He asked a few friends to act as wranglers for troubled inner-city kids referred by community leaders. Soon he was offering day and weekend camps on his 10-acre ranch in Agua Dulce, Calif., 50 miles north of Los Angeles, where kids saddled up his horses and learned to trust and respect the animals, themselves and each other.
Now, almost 15 years later, he estimates nearly 10,000 kids, ages 10 to 18, have attended his program, which he is launching nationwide from his new home base in New Tazewell, Tenn. (pop. 2,871), plus scouting for additional sites in other states.
For the Inner City Slickers, lessons in hard work and responsibility often begin at the end of a shovel, where they start by cleaning horse stables. Then they learn to conquer their fear of riding an animal that’s more than twice their size. McMeel has seen tough, tattooed teenagers terrified of getting onto a horse. But soon they are grinning ear to ear as they twirl lariats, run relay races and ride trails—all on horseback.
“We purposely set up situations which make them afraid so they can’t act cool and aloof, and they forget about race and color,” McMeel says. “Then we support them though their fear, which builds their self-confidence.”
He recalls one girl who was terrified of riding his homemade mechanical bull, a barrel, attached by springs to four posts, that can bounce to 15 feet in the air when wranglers pull on the control ropes.
“I told her, ‘You just have to sit on it and we’ll take however long it takes,’” McMeel recalls. “Finally we could move it a foot up and down. Next time, she rode it like the rest of the kids.” As the kids open up to each other, they play trust games, share personal stories around the evening campfires and attend cowboy church services. Many return every year, and some become junior wranglers who mentor newcomers.
“One kid, Al Ferrell, who started with us when he was 13, is now head chef at Amtrak,” McMeel says proudly. His mom, Charlotte Ferrell, a human services worker and youth minister from San Pedro, Calif., started bringing groups of inner-city kids from her church to the first Inner City Slickers program in 1993.
“I’ve seen Inner City Slickers get kids who came with prejudices to cooperate as a team and cheer each other on,” Ferrell says. “Most programs take much longer to accomplish what Michael’s does in six hours.”
Melissa Douglas, 14, of Los Angeles, came to the program in 2004. She initially was scared of playing a trust game in which she had to climb a ladder, fold her arms and fall backward into her friends’ arms.
“I was afraid they wouldn’t catch me,” Douglas says. Afterward, she admits, “I learned to trust just a little bit more.”
What keeps McMeel so committed? “It’s seeing the eyes of those kids open up when they first get on a horse,” he says, “and the big smiles on their faces when they leave.”