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'Auto Therapy' Class Funded By SoCal Car Dealers Helps Troubled Youth

HIGHLAND PARK ( – An auto shop class funded by local car dealers is making a difference for young men who've had more than their share of struggles.

Brian Kies is a teacher at the student auto shop on campus at Optimist Youth Homes & Family Services in Highland Park.

The school is a home and a high school that specializes in outreach to teens who've faced serious challenges.

"We try to teach them a little bit of discipline. A little bit on interaction with other people ... and a whole lot about cars," Kies said.

Until six months ago, 18-year-old Juan Ramirez had a rough time of it.

"I was getting into trouble. Didn't go to school stuff like that," Ramirez said. "I didn't really care about nothing."

Fellow student Vincent Ruiz was also headed in the wrong direction.

"I was getting in trouble with the law. I was ditching school a lot," he said. "I ended up getting arrested at one point last year and then they decided this would be the best thing for me."

Rather than write off troubled youth, Optimist works hard at rehabilitation.

For Vincent and Juan, the key to a brighter future has been "auto therapy."

"They're working on cars. They're working on equipment," Kies said, adding that learning how to fix broken cars can help improve academic performance.

"My goal here is a lot of hands-on – get them interested in auto – so they can move on and maybe do better at book-work and understand book-work a lot better," he explained.

This auto shop is funded by a donation from the Greater Los Angeles New Car Dealers Association.

Bob Smith is the group's executive director. He says what Juan and Vincent are learning at the school could land them a job working in a dealership like his.

"We are always looking for entry-level techs and those that have this training are absolutely qualified," he said.

Vincent hopes to be an actor one day but likes the idea of a back-up plan.

Juan can now see himself eventually becoming a master mechanic.

"It made me think about the future. Like I could actually do something in life," he said.

This shop and these men have made a huge difference in his life.

"I always tell them, 'I want to be like you guys one day,'" he said. "And they tell me: 'You can be better.'"

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