When I was asked to contribute this special column concerning the impact of gangs here in Lodi, two observations became abundantly clear: 1.) I know very little about gangs, the why, how, where and when; and 2.) the 700-plus kids who use our faculties on a daily bases not only know more about gangs than I, but they at some point in their young lives (sooner rather than later) are going to be challenged to make a critical, life-changing decision.
If anything in my article can be used to continue the dialog on this gang issue, then I have helped advance the problem towards the solution. The result of gang activity right here in Lodi is innocent people die — yes, that means graveyard dead — and that burden is shared by all.
This critical, life-changing decision left to the mind of a child is, "Do I, a 10-, 11-, or 12-year-old, pledge allegiance or affliction to a gang?" The repercussions of an affirmative response affect not only their future opportunities or lack thereof, they greatly impact the family dynamic and their neighborhood stability, and create a great financial burden to the residents of Lodi.
I do know the one thing I can't do is nothing. Daily, I ask for guidance that my actions and my decisions positively influence all children.
But what can I do here at the Lodi Boys and Girls Club?
I can offer a safe, clean environment, stressing education and career, character and leadership, health and life skills, the arts, and sports, fitness and recreation. These five core programs offered through your community club in conjunction with the Boys and Girls Club of America have a proven multi-year, nationwide track record of offering today's kids the very real opportunity to grow up and become tomorrow's adults. Our viable alternative promotes community citizenship, personal responsibility and individual growth.
Moreover, your local school district, Lodi Police Department and many other city and county programs, by design and implementation of their own programs, directly address gang suppression and gang intervention. Additionally, like programs are also offered through most churches, synagogues, temples and mosques, yet that is still not enough.
I'm reminded of the scene in the movie "The Shawshank Redemption" (1994), when Red, played by Morgan Freeman, is in front of the parole board and is asked if he has been rehabilitated. Paraphrasing that scene is what I would love to be able to say to these kids: "'I am an old man. You are young, and you are about to make a stupid decision, a decision that will lead you to committing terrible, senseless crime(s).' I want to try and talk some sense to him, tell him the way things are. But I can't. That kid's long gone and all that is left is this old man."
There are others who have the ability to continue to reach out. My No. 2 at the club, Mr. Eddie Cotton EVP/COO, has spent the greater part of the past 20 years dedicating much of his time reaching out to Lodi's most vulnerable youths.
In fact, all staff at the LBGC, our current board of directors, our volunteers and, in an ever-increasing critical manner, our community financial donors have the passion to truly make a difference. We are committed to doing our part.
Front-line prevention is not only economically most affordable, it has proven to garner the highest success when compared to intervention or rehabilitation. Again, as Red would say, "Rehabilitated? To me it's just a made up word ... What do you really want to know? Am I sorry for what I did?" Imagine if we lived in a society where all we could offer victims of senseless gang crimes is "He/she is sorry for what they did." Really, that's it, that's all we can offer. I think the community of Lodi deserves much more, don't you?
As for the nature and causation of gangs (the why, how, where and when) and ways of dealing with decreasing gang activity, there are many trained professionals and I will defer to them. Today within the ranks of the Lodi Police Department, various other agencies and community outreach associations are many well-qualified people. Given sufficient resources, genuine success can be obtained.
To conclude, I would like to share with your readers "The Starfish Story" by Loren Eisley:
One day, a man was walking along the beach when he noticed a boy picking something up and gently throwing it into the ocean.
Approaching the boy, he asked, "What are you doing?"
The youth replied, "Throwing starfish back into the ocean. If I don't throw them back, they'll die."
"Son," the man said, "don't you realize there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish? You can't make a difference!"
The boy bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it back into the surf. Then, smiling at the man, he said, "I made a difference for that one."
The gang problem in Lodi is very real, and it truly does affect you — yes, you. Please become involved in the solution.
Paul I. Bonell, "just another old man," is president of the Lodi Boys and Girls Club.