Two men in Lodi are hoping to give teenage gang members and kids who are considering joining a gang a chance to choose a better life.
The city hired Ruben Y. Guardiola and Ernest Bass, who are both former gang members, to work with students at Lodi high schools and middle schools as part of an effort to reduce gang violence throughout the city.
Neighborhood Services Manager Joseph Wood and Guardiola described how the outreach program works to the Lodi Improvement Committee on Tuesday night.
"Creating more opportunities for the kids who are at-risk is something we are trying to cultivate," Wood said. "They are too much of a resource to lose."
Guardiola has worked at Lodi High School for two years through Point Break, a gang outreach program based in Stockton, and started having the kids play handball at lunch on Tuesday and Fridays. The game has brought together members of Lodi's two major gangs, the Norteños and Sureños.
Now working for the city, he also visits Tokay High School and started a handball program there at lunch.
Bass is currently working at Lodi Middle School on Wednesdays and Fridays, and will also work at Millswood Middle School.
The goal is to build trust with the students and discover if there are any underlying issues contributing to the kids' interest in gangs, Wood said. The outreach workers can connect the teens with tutoring, extracurricular activities like handball, anger management courses, classes to complete a GED, trade school information or counseling to help gang members reach their goals.
"In many cases, a lot of these kids feel like they have been left behind or abandoned in one way or another (by) a parent or a father figure," Wood said. "Now there are two gentleman out there who are interested and care about what they are doing and trying to send them in a better direction."
The outreach workers will also do home visits and talk with the parents about their children's potential gang involvement, Wood said. That will give the workers an opportunity to see whether there are any issues at home that they can help with, and refer the families to community agencies.
Under the program, youth outreach workers will spend time with the students on a long-term basis, and work with local businesses to help the teens find jobs if they have left gangs, Wood said.
As a former gang member, Guardiola uses his own personal experiences and those of his family and friends to get students back on track.
After being in prison three times and spending more time in jail, he decided to get out of gangs in his early 30s because he was tired of leaving his wife and children behind when he was locked up.
"My father always said, 'If you keep doing what you are doing, it's going to keep getting worse.' He also said, 'That one second can change your life,'" Guardiola said. "I didn't listen to my father, but when I was in my cell, I wish I did."
He moved out of Stockton's east side, started a landscaping business that he owned for 14 years, and bought his own home. Both of his kids steered clear of gangs and graduated from high school, and his son is going to college for computer science.
When talking with students, he tells them that if they do not get out of gangs, they will end up dead or in prison. He often shows them videos of what life is like behind bars.
"I'm very direct with them. I don't sugar-coat anything. I tell them about my life. I've been through all that," Guardiola said.
Committee chair Tim Litton said he was happy the city was targeting middle school students, and he suggested that Guardiola speak with elementary school students, too. The city also sponsors the Gang Resistance Education And Training programs for sixth-graders.
"When they are small like that, there's a fascination about it. All they see is the glamour and the glory," Litton said.
As he works with the kids, Guardiola said he finds the natural leaders of the group and talks with them. He makes it clear that they have the ability to influence their peers in positive ways.
"One thing about Hispanics, we care about pride," he said. "I tell them, 'If you care so much about your people, you need to steer them in the right direction.'"
In March, the city received a $250,000 two-year California Gang Reduction, Intervention and Prevention grant from the state to reduce gang violence in Lodi by 25 percent. The city hired the two part-time youth outreach workers using $85,000 in matching funds required for the grant.
Wood will manage the program, because one of the key goals is for gang members to trust the outreach workers. If they think the program is associated with the police, that will discourage many gang members from participating and getting help leaving the lifestyle.
For more than 16 years Wood has worked for the city, and he says he feels most rewarded overseeing this outreach program.
"Nothing that I have done in Lodi is better than what I am doing right now," he said. "Hearing the stories and feedback of these kids' attitudes changing, I haven't felt that good in a long time. We have the potential to do some really good things in Lodi."
Anyone interested in finding out more about the programs the city is launching to prevent gang violence should attend the advisory committee meeting at 3 p.m. Nov. 26 in the Lodi Police Department Community Room, 215 E. Elm St.
To contact a youth outreach worker, call 209-333-5525.
Contact reporter Maggie Creamer at firstname.lastname@example.org.