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Proposed program would offer young former gang members work experience

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Posted: Friday, March 1, 2013 12:00 am

If a Lodi teen is turning his life around and leaving the gang lifestyle, offering him a chance to gain some job experience might just be the incentive he needs to keep going.

That's the idea behind a new program proposed by the Lodi Police Department.

Two gang prevention outreach workers were hired part-time by the city of Lodi in November, using California Gang Reduction, Intervention and Prevention grant funding, to spend time with high school and middle school students in an effort to reduce gang violence.

Both Ernest Bass and Ruben Y. Guardiola are former gang members who work for Point Break, a gang outreach program in Stockton. The workers are building trust with students at Lodi and Tokay high schools, where lunchtime games of handball are giving rival gang members a chance to interact civilly. The two say that some kids are making great progress, and are ready for a further step away from the world of the Norteños and Sureños.

That next step could be a job shadowing or internship program, said Lodi Police Chief Mark Helms. He and other city officials are brainstorming with the Lodi Chamber of Commerce to find some local businesses willing to let a promising student spend a few hours a week in the office.

There's no checklist yet for the ideal student, though each will be approved by Bass and Guardiola before entering the program. Helms said it's up to the student himself to demonstrate he is ready to take a step like this.

"It's an earned opportunity," said Helms. "But unless someone creates an opportunity, these kids might not ever be exposed to the working world. It could give them an alternative to see what else the world can look like."

Joseph Wood, neighborhood services manager and supervisor of the gang outreach efforts, said funds for the program will come from a second CalGRIP grant. The $350,000 grant will fund the city's gang prevention program through 2014.

The first grant came in March 2012 for $250,000, and allowed police to step up enforcement and hire Bass and Guardiola.

The job shadowing program is one of several options for local businesses to connect with schools.

Pat Patrick, president and CEO of the Lodi Chamber of Commerce is also a member of the Partners In Education, a Lodi group connecting businesses with schools and students for donations of supplies, funding, or their business expertise.

Patrick said a few local businesses have adopted schools, and others are considering one-on-one mentoring programs for students leaving gangs behind.

"After they mentor a young person, they want to continue the positive experience. This is positive contact with a local business with the hope of a job later on," Patrick said. He has not yet identified which businesses might be a good fit for the program, but he said he is open to ideas.

No one is looking to just give the teens jobs, Wood said. But if things go well, the program might open doors to jobs in the future.

Some other agencies in California are using CalGRIP funds to get teens employed from day one. The grant money covers the first two to four weeks of work for a recommended student working in the office of an employer willing to take a chance. If the student does well, the company offers a job.

But in Lodi, the program isn't that clearly defined yet.

Wood said he wants to see these students demonstrating some serious changes for the better, and this program could be a good reward.

"They know their life at home, they know their life at school. They don't know anything else," he said.

Bass and Guardiola work at Tokay High School twice a week. Tokay principal Erik Sandstrom said the response from students has been positive. The key is that Bass and Guardiola are interested in the kids' lives, but they aren't parents, teachers or traditional authority figures. Since the outreach workers have walked the same path of leaving gangs behind, kids realize they're talking to people who get it.

"They just mingle, they talk about whatever. They get to know the kids, and know their families," he said.

Sandstrom said he could think of a few teens with enough maturity and the right attitude who might be good choices for a job shadowing assignment.

Sandstrom noted that students respond well when confronted with the real-world application of classroom skills. Learning about a job and the education it takes to get there can put those long days of high school in perspective.

"I think it would be tremendous. A lot of them might not know they're ready, but they are," he said. "They need to go out and see some of the things that are out there, and this exposes them to a few things they didn't know were possibilities."

Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at sarap@lodinews.com.

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