Mona Shield Payne / Special to the Sun
Monday, Aug. 31, 2009 | 1:59 a.m.
For more information about Devil Pups, contact Marie Tomao at 285-4142.
Some of Oriana Ellis' classmates at Durango High couldn't look her in the eye when they returned to school.
While many teens spent the summer playing video games, eating junk food and hanging out with friends, the 17-year-old Ellis was training with U.S. Marines and her fellow Devil Pups at the Camp Pendleton Marine base in Southern California.
Before she left for the 10-day camp, Ellis set a personal goal to score a perfect 400 on the physical fitness test. Some of her classmates said she couldn't do it.
But she proved them wrong and became the first female Devil Pup from Southern Nevada ever to hit the perfect score. Her achievement also won her the Honor Pup Award, the highest prize possible.
"I knew what I needed and worked my hardest to achieve that," she said. "I wanted to prove to everyone that I am strong, both mentally and physically."
Ellis said she didn't have to say anything to her doubters. Retired Lt. Col. James McEvoy, the school's Air Force Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps instructor, did it for her. "They didn't really say anything to me but they wouldn't look at me either," she said.
Devil Pups, Inc., is a nonprofit organization that teaches teen boys and girls self-confidence, respect and to take responsibility for their actions.
Since 1954, the program has sought to give teens the skills to succeed in life, Southern Nevada Liaison Representative Marie Tomao said.
The name is derived from the nickname Devil Dogs, given to U.S. Marines in World War I. Devil Pups is not a Marine Corps-sponsored program nor is it a mini boot camp, para-military or recruiting organization for the military. Rather, it's a place for motivated, uncompromising teens like Ellis to learn skills at the same place many of the nation's military units learn the rigors of combat training, she said.
It's limited to 600 teens, ages 14-17, from California, Nevada, Arizona and Utah. This year's camp was held July 30 to Aug. 8.
The 16 Southern Nevada teens were honored Sunday at the Greater Nevada Marine Corps League club, 4360 W. Spring Mountain Road.
Sen. John Ensign, a sponsor, gave the keynote address and commended the program for teaching the youngsters the discipline and teamwork needed to be leaders.
"You can't learn the life lessons that you really need to succeed in life without some of the things that you're teaching the young people," he said.
"Everything comes from the top to inspire, to set the discipline, to set the tone for any organization."
While at the Marine base, the pups slept in tents, woke up every day by 5 a.m., ran, swam, hiked and sweated it out to feel like they accomplished something meaningful.
For 16-year-old Joseph Gorre, his accomplishment was overcoming his fears, including a fear of heights. He did that when he had to plunge from a 35-foot-tall platform into a pool.
"Before I went to Devil Pups, I would always limit myself because I have so many weaknesses," he said. "One thing I learned from going to Devil Pups is to turn your weaknesses into goals. Ever since I got back, I just face my fears."
Boulder City Police Chief Tom Finn said he sees the result of teens' bad decisions but youth programs can provide invaluable lessons that will last a lifetime.
"The guiding principals you learn in the Devil Pup program of teamwork, discipline, self respect, leadership, patriotism and citizenship will serve you well in every aspect of your life," he said.
The Southern Nevada chapter is the only one with a 10-week training period prior to the Marine camp and requires its pups to perform community service.
This year's class logged more than 500 hours of community service during the summer, including picking up garbage and placing 25,000 flags at the annual Memorial Day ceremony at Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Boulder City.
In addition, they spent two hours every Saturday morning for 10 weeks running and performing sit-ups, push-ups and pull-ups to qualify to attend the camp.
"It's important to recognize the shear determination and leadership skills that it takes to complete this training in order to be selected to even go," Tomao said.
The campers attend the Marine camp for free because sponsors subsidize the approximately $370 cost per pup. The Henderson and Boulder City police departments, the Boulder City Rotary Club, the Greater Nevada Marine Corps League, attorney John Turco and local Marine Corps leagues are among the organization's annual supporters.
Boulder City High School junior Richard Vince, 16, plans to attend West Point after graduation. He said his experience this past summer as a pup helped prepare him to face the challenges of a career in the military or law enforcement and as a candidate for school council.
"It's going to change your life and you're going to learn a lot," he said.