Accomplishment is the Key to Self-Respect
In 1952, the head of a California Youth Authority program asked Louis Zamperini to speak to the residents of his program, a group of kids aged 16-20 who were incarcerated for all types of crimes, including homicide. Seeing that the kids were moved by his story, but knowing that as a troubled kid himself, lectures never got him to behave, he decided to take action and get involved in their lives on a more personal level.
Louis founded Victory Boys Camp that same year, a nonprofit youth program that existed on donations, and initially set it up on an abandoned campsite on the Angeles Crest Highway in Los Angeles, CA. There was no electricity, but there were four cabins and a freshwater stream, and rent was cheap. Soliciting the help of two other Olympians, Keith and Paul Wegeman, Louis found that most of these boys he was helping justified their crimes as something they had done "for a thrill." Louis figured he could give them a new kind of thrill.
The three counselors would take 30 to 40 troubled boys at a time up to the mountains for an all-expenses-paid weeklong trip, and expose them to sports, survival skills, and an authentic wilderness experience. Louis found that by involving these boys in activities like glacier climbing, rappelling, and swimming—to name a few— that they would open up to him, and speak to him like a friend. After the days activities, they would sit around a camp fire and talk about their lives, giving Louis a chance to get to the root of why these boys were committing crimes. More often than not he found that low self-respect was the culprit, something that Louis struggled with as a child.
Only a few years later, Louis lost the camp on Angeles Crest when the owner of the land decided to triple the rent after Louis had made improvements to the site. Louis moved his camp up to Mammoth Mountain, where the ski area founder Dave McCoy promised free equipment and lift tickets for all the kids Louis would bring with him. The camp housing changed over the years, moving from a chalet that a couple generously offered to Victory Boys Camp, to the old McGee Creek Lodge, but the core location of the camp was always there—the great outdoors.
As Louis entered his later years, his ability to spend time in the wilderness waned, but his involvement with youth never did. The actual, physical location of the camp had closed, but his mission continued. "I'm willing to help any kid that's in trouble, to get him out of his mess, and to get him under an inspirational and stiff disciplinary program," said Zamperini, at age 97. He continued to provide spiritual and financial help to troubled youth until the day of his death.
Passing the Torch
After Louis passed away in 2014, the Zamperini family deliberated over how we could keep his legacy alive for years to come after the release of Unbroken. The family saw that there was still a need for this very specific type of ministry centered around faith and forgiveness, and decided that Victory Boys Camp should be renewed and rebuilt. Despite the challenge of starting from scratch and no longer owning their base in Lake of The Woods, California, they truly believed that it was necessary to push forward and continue on with the foundation in whatever capacity they were able. It is their family’s dream to see Louis’ message of survival and forgiveness shared with young people, and they asked his only grandson Clay to step up to the plate as the new Executive Director of the foundation to make it a reality.