His peers at Cabrillo High School may not know it, but Derek Young is a poet laureate. It’s a distinction not many 17-year-olds can claim, and to Young it represents far more than his talent with words.
Last summer, Young was incarcerated at Los Prietos Boys Camp, the juvenile detention center located in the Los Padres National Forest. He was 16 years old, and it was his second time facing time for drug-related offenses.
“The first time, I was young, and I didn’t use the experience wisely,” Young said, remembering his prior stay at Los Prietos when he was 14. The second time, though, something in him woke up. “They teach you work ethic and self-discipline and help you stay on track,” he said of the program. “You realize you have to take hold of your own life and become a leader.”
For Young, many of these realizations took place in English class at the camp’s Los Robles High School. A bright student with a stylish command of language, Young began to produce original poems that expressed his growing belief in the rehabilitation process and the importance of personal responsibility. His poems were anthologized in Bridges, a collection of student poetry published biannually by instructional aide Colleen Hefley and English teacher Victor Prado.
Among Young’s poems from the collection is “Put in the Effort,” an admonishment that might be aimed at his younger self: “If only you believed what the Lord tried to stress to you / Instead of trying to be cool and protect what is said of you / If only you stayed humble and tried not to / Bite the hand that fed you.”
In October of last year, Young completed his program at Los Prietos, taking with him a copy of the book. Then in January, he was called back to the camp — this time for a special event honoring the work of former U.S. poet laureate William Stafford, who spent time at Los Prietos Civilian Public Service Camp as a conscientious objector during WWII. On what would have been Stafford’s 100th birthday, Young rose before those gathered to read Stafford’s poetry as well as his own. He was then named the first poet laureate of Los Prietos Boys Camp for the quality and quantity of writing he produced during the program.
As he nears the end of his junior year at Cabrillo High, Young is thriving: maintaining a high GPA, playing football and baseball, and looking for more creative writing opportunities. These days, he describes his relationship with Los Prietos as “friendly,” adding, “I respect them for turning me around.”
And if his poems are anything to go on, Young has figured out where ultimate responsibility for his life lies. His poem “The Answer,” ends with this telling stanza: “So don’t ask me for wisdom / or you will just be disappointed / for only you can get anointed / from yourself to be your own king.”
To learn more about Los Prietos Boys Camp, visit countyofsb.org.