Our Story

What began as the dream of a handful of individuals has now become a positive reality for hundreds of young people in Monterey County. In 2000, the Rancho Cielo Board was established as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization to develop a comprehensive center of learning and social services for the region’s underserved youth.

Now-retired Judge John M. Phillips wanted to break the tragic cycle of offending and incarceration that he witnessed too many young people caught in while serving on the Monterey County Superior Court. Phillips wanted to create an effective alternative that would help keep first-time offenders from becoming repeat offenders.

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From Dilapited to Reimagined

A feasibility study (graciously funded by the Packard Foundation) initially found that Rancho Cielo was not a viable idea, but Phillips persisted.

Once home to the Natividad Boys’ Ranch, a juvenile incarceration facility, the current 100-acre home of Rancho Cielo lay dormant for nearly 20 years. The space was falling to pieces, having become a storage graveyard for surplus county-owned furniture and equipment. It no longer had a source for potable water, and the buildings were condemned.

The county administration estimated it would cost upwards of $20M to refurbish the property properly, yet through the generosity of the local business community and private donors, Phillips upgraded the property for less than $2M.

When the county finally agreed to lease the property to the newly-founded nonprofit, community members rushed to help. In 2003, with tremendous support from volunteers and partners in the construction industry, led by friend and Board Member Don Chapin, redevelopment of the site began in earnest.

What was once a dormitory became a classroom complex, a kennel became administrative offices, and a crumbling maintenance building became a 400 square-foot wood shop room. With extensive input from local community-based agencies and in a public-private partnership with Monterey County’s Probation, Office of Education and Behavioral Health Departments, the Silver Star Youth Program at Rancho Cielo was born.

Rancho Cielo officially opened its doors on October 10, 2004. Fueled by Phillip’s single-minded vision and his sheer refusal to hear the word “can’t,” Rancho Cielo now had a home. The first participants took classes at the old Natividad Hospital while the Rancho Cielo site was being cleared out and developed.

Since its inception, the organization has helped hundreds of students graduate from high school and become functioning, contributing members of society and an inclusive economy, while giving them the support services they need to thrive.

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“Rancho Cielo is about hope and opportunity. It’s about providing support to individuals who have struggled with systems within our society and culture, and are looking to do something positive with their lives.”
—Chris Devers, CEO

“When you provide young people with an encouraging environment and the opportunity to rediscover themselves, they begin to hold their heads up high and start thinking, often for the first time, about their future.”
—John Phillips, Founder and Retired Superior Court Judge

“Our community is trying to give youth a little bit of the life that every kid should have.”
—Don Chapin, Founding Board Member



John Morgan Phillips was born in 1942 in southern California to loving, hardworking parents who were products of the Depression. His father was a grip at Fox Studios, and his mother was a devoted homemaker. As the eldest of their two children, Phillips would adore and care for his best friend and younger brother Bobby, born with Down’s syndrome, his entire life.

After graduating from Culver City High School in 1960, Phillips went on to graduate cum laude from California State University Long Beach with a BA in Political Science in 1964. He also joined the National Guard Reserve and served until 1970.

Phillips attended UC Berkeley School of Law, and after earning his JD degree, he practiced law as a civil litigator at a private law firm in Oakland. In 1971, he joined Monterey County’s District Attorney’s office and was quickly appointed as Assistant District Attorney in 1975, in charge of the Salinas office. He served as the Assistant District Attorney until he was appointed to the Monterey Superior Court Bench in 1984.

While on the Bench he created the Domestic Violence Court and was the first chairman of the Domestic Violence Council. He also was responsible for the development of the Mental Health Court. He devoted many years to Family Law Court and was responsible for many of its current innovative services. Phillips served on the Monterey County Bench for 21 years before his retirement in 2004.

By the 1990’s, the nation was ardently putting bad guys behind bars, passing the “three strikes” laws that dictated to judges the sentences they must levy. Phillips could see that these younger and younger “criminals” would choose a different path, if given the choice. He became the loudest and most persistent voice in favor of developing alternatives to incarceration, especially for youth.

After many years of witnessing the tragic cycle of offending and incarceration of so many young people, Phillips founded Rancho Cielo in 2000 as a place where first-time youth offenders who want a different path can finish their high school diploma and learn job readiness skills. Despite many challenges getting started, he transformed the dilapidated former Natividad Boy’s Ranch into the beautiful place Rancho Cielo is today. Phillips ran the property and programs himself in the first years, with his wife doing the bookkeeping.

Since his retirement from the bench in 2004, Phillips has devoted most of his time to the continued development of Rancho Cielo, working closely with the County of Monterey. Over time, he has spoken tirelessly at service clubs about the organization and given countless tours to visitors. Today, he serves on the Board and is actively involved at Rancho Cielo.

Phillips is married to his lifelong partner Patti. They have three grown children, two adorable grandchildren, and one very opinionated dog, Otto. Above all else, he is still unable to hear the word “can’t.”

Chris Devers grew up on a walnut farm in Visalia, California. He earned a BA from University of California Santa Barbara in Business Economics with an emphasis in accounting. Devers traveled extensively with Semester at Sea, a global study-abroad program, studying comparative economics in 13 countries.

He served as a legislative intern for Congressman Cal Dooley in Washington DC and as a Peace Corps volunteer in Bolivia, South America, before coming to Monterey, California, where he attended the Monterey Institute of International Studies and earned a MA in International Policy Studies.

Devers then entered the education field as a math teacher at Martin Luther King Middle School. One year later he was recruited to work for the Monterey County Office of Education’s Alternative Programs where he served for 18 years as a teacher, principal and senior director. Devers developed and oversaw several schools and programs throughout Monterey County, including court, community and adult education programs.

He now serves as CEO of Rancho Cielo and is married to Joanna Devers. They have two daughters, Sofia and Ariana.