It seems like yesterday that I was driving on Highway 12 from the Bay Area to interview with the Lodi Unified School District to attain a counseling position.
It was a warm sunny day in July 1989. As I drove into Lodi, I was mesmerized by the beautiful countryside and the fertile farmland. Once in town, I was thoroughly charmed with the individuality of the homes and the smiles on people's faces as they strolled down School Street. My thoughts were, "I hope they offer me a job. I would really like to work in this warm and inviting community."
When I received the call from Lois Fish at the LUSD personnel department, offering me a position as an elementary counselor, I felt my heart jump with joy.
Now, several decades later, I continue to feel my heart jump with joy working as an elementary school principal and living in the community that many years ago charmed me. Although my feelings for the community have not changed, my concern for maintaining this wonderful community is profound.
Our community has experienced an increase in gang activity and fatalities in the last few years, and this causes me great sadness and despair because I have been the principal for several of the individuals who have been killed or have killed.
I so remember their vibrant smiles and kind demeanors as young children. They laughed as they played four-square. They were excited to read to me or listen to me read to them. They enthusiastically played soccer at recess.
What happened? I ask myself. What could we have done to prevent these young boys from pursuing a path that ends with pain and loss?
As I reflected on these individuals' early experiences, I started to recognize a pattern:
These individuals were lacking:
- Strong positive male and/or female role models in their home.
- A strong self-esteem and sense of value.
- Clear accountability from their parents.
- Academic success.
- Enriching activities in their lives — i.e., sports, clubs, playing musical instruments, 4-H, Future Farmers of America, Boy Scouts, etc.
- Shortand long-term goals for their lives.
These young boys have now found a purpose in belonging to a gang. The gang has become their family. They now have the greatest respect for the senior gang members and they are willing to steal, fight and/or kill to honor their "gang family."
Although they may continue to love their parents and siblings, they still see little purpose in their life other than what the streets and their "gang family" is offering. These young boys are also becoming more attractive to the young girls who have shared experiences. Although the girls may not want to participate in the gang activity, they may be curious and a bit enamored with the idea of "my boyfriend is in a gang and he's cool and bad."
Unfortunately, we now observe denial from the girls and families and minimal remorse from the boys. Why, we ask ourselves, do they not feel remorse? Developmentally, they are young boys who do not have the cognitive capacity to use the best judgment. Their lack of judgment is now impacting our community in a painful manner.
Boys and girls walking home are scared. Families have stopped sitting in the front of their homes and are living in fear. When will the next gunshots be? Will it be by our house? Those are the questions that many families living on the Eastside ask themselves.
And so, questions have started running through my mind.
How can we get these young men more involved in organized sports on the Eastside?
How can we get these young men exposed to more art activities to help them discover talents they didn't know they had? Are there more people willing to volunteer their time to teach these art activities?
Would opportunities to learn how to play piano or other instruments inspire a young man to discover and continue to build his musical talents and skills?
How can we get more organized clubs at the various elementary schools and/or middle schools to offer opportunities for enrichment for these young men?
Are there people from various professions willing to mentor these young men in learning about banking, business, agriculture, cooking, baking, accounting, computer repair, automotive repair, solar energy ... ?
Would having a mobile city library enable these young men and their families to develop a love for learning?
Would attending a K-8 school offer individuals the social, emotional and academic support needed during such challenging times?
How do we get more affordable family activities that can help these young boys stay connected and bonded to their families, and how do we get parents to take advantage of them?
Are there education programs for parents and their children to help these young boys to continue to respect their parents as well as themselves?
Would opportunities and support from multiple agencies and caring individuals protect a young boy and keep him from continuing the cycle of family gang activity?
Although I am one person, I do believe that coming together as a community to assist these young boys in finding a positive and meaningful purpose for their lives could be a strong intervention. These young boys live in our community and were once 7-year-olds with big smiles and missing their two front teeth.
An example of community involvement is how Heritage School has benefited greatly from the United Way Lodi Community Council, Omega Nu, Lodi Adult Running/Walking Club and teachers like Janine Jacinto, Marte Rott, Rebecca Morgan, Angeles Ortiz (parent), and our secretary Francis Pineda in keeping our Heritage Youth Running/Walking Club active and vital.
This club has been a positive intervention for many of our students helping them to believe in themselves and the value of school, physical fitness and healthy eating habits.
I hope that in reading this column you will be interested and inspired to extend and offer support in creating opportunities, experiences and options for the youths of Lodi. It's imperative that parents, educators, law enforcement, clergy and community members join together in order to eradicate the "gang activity" in Lodi. Let's focus and work together in keeping our community safe, enriching, charming and alluring for everyone.
Maria Cervantes is principal at Heritage Elementary School.