GANGS - Broetje Orchards tackles gangs by building community

'We are definitely in the belief that it takes a village to raise a child.'

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PRESCOTT -- A conversation about gangs and how to properly address them started at Broetje Orchards in the early 1990s, as the company opened a new housing program for its apple orchard and packing plant employees.

Through its Snake River Housing Inc., Broetje provides 135 homes to employees and their families, as well as several temporary apartments shared by seasonal workers. In all, about 600 people, including many children, live in Vista Hermosa. The name, meaning "beautiful view," makes up the community within Broetje, which includes not just work and homes, but a child care, private grade school, chapel, sports field, small market and several other amenities.

Community is what Broetje leaders have created, and supporting its community, made up of its employees and their families, is a common goal.

So when gangs became a topic of discussion and concern, the initial reaction was to include the community in the problem solving.

Eva Madrigal, director of Snake River Housing, described how soon after the new housing opened, some residents brought gang culture with them.

"So they started recruiting here," Madrigal explained. "They started grooming our other kids here."

Roger Bairstow, Snake River executive director, said part of the approach to tackling gang involvement looks to answer why youths are drawn to gangs in the first place. And whatever the answer -- whether youths lacked things to do or needed structure and attention at home -- Broetje families have to be involved through the process.

"The community has to be able to help itself," he said.

Bairstow explained that families often are unaware of the warning signs of gang involvement. The clothing youths start wearing, the things they draw and things they say can all be indicators.

Aware of the potential consequences of not addressing gangs promptly, Broetje leadership started by going directly to parents to discuss gangs and concerning trends. Because gangs are often represented by teens, or younger youths, the focus became to reach parents but also include the children.

"We call the parents in. We bring the parents in with the kids," Madrigal said.

It also prompted leaders to develop rules, and they started educating parents with children, as well as young employees curious about gangs.

"People know they can't have criminal items, or break the laws," said Carmen Bernal, who manages the temporary housing program through the Mano a Mano organization.

In one example, leaders were torn about what to do when a photo of an employee posing with a weapon was discovered online. The man, about 18 years old, had apparently borrowed the gun from a friend and used it as a profile picture for an online social networking site. The picture was clearly taken outside Broetje housing.

The young man was confronted about the picture. His apartment was searched, but no weapon was found.

Bairstow and Madrigal said the photo would have been enough to evict the man. Bernal, who said the man was a good employee, suggested an interview with him before action was taken.

The man had a good reputation despite the photo, and accepted his mistake. The directors reminded him he was looked up to by youths and was setting an example.

Broetje leaders may have reached the man in time to keep him from making more dangerous choices. He is still employed at the orchard and has not had any other infractions.

"It's amazing what relationship building can do," Madrigal said.

As part of its community building, Broetje has several resources in place, which include movie nights, dances, sports activities and enrichment opportunities for youths.

"El Circulo" is a group for young males who live at the orchard, typically 14-18 years old. It is directed by Archibaldo Jacobo, who also coordinates a variety of athletics, such as soccer teams, for Broetje youths.

The company also keeps close ties with the Prescott School District and is often in the loop if Broetje youths are suddenly wearing gang attire at school or showing other signs of gang involvement. Madrigal is also a Prescott School Board member.

"We are definitely in the belief that it takes a village to raise a child," Madrigal said.

Maria P. Gonzalez can be reached at mariagonzalez@wwub.com or 526-8317. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/schoolhousemissives.

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