GANGS - A wealth of alternatives for children in Walla Walla Valley

Children in the Walla Walla Valley have no shortage of positive choices for ways to spend their free time.

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Community Center for Youth cycling team member Phillip Somers (right) helps with putting up signs for Sunday's criterium. April 19, 2008

It's all about choices: in beliefs, in friends and activities. If children are busy with fun, interesting things to do, they may be less likely to enter a gang. The Walla Walla area has many organizations that offer enrichment for kids giving families more positive choices.

The YWCA has an assortment of youth programs including the After School Adventure Club, in existence since 1978.

"These aren't specifically gang-prevention programs," said Anne-Marie Zell Schwerin, executive director. "But we want to keep kids busy and safe. We have all kinds of activities focused on school-age kids, including ice skating on Friday," she said.

Another youth program, according to Schwerin, is the YWCA's Mariposa program, specifically designed for Latina girls in fifth through seventh grade. Mariposa was founded in 1997 and meets once a week after school.

"It helps girls that live in two cultures cope and be proud of their culture; focus on leadership skills, decision-making skills and learn how to implement those skills," said Schwerin. "Another focus is substance abuse prevention and how to handle peer pressure."

The program also addresses relationships and sexuality, with a curriculum flexible enough to include other concerns.

In spite of the difficulties experienced by teenagers of all groups, the reason for the focus on young Hispanic girls is due to increasingly grim numbers indicating they are at the greatest risk.

"So we decided to reach out to this group first" Schwerin said. "It's hard enough being a teen anyway. We saw statistics that indicated these young women had the greatest risk for early pregnancy, not completing high school, drugs. Last summer we got news that Hispanic young women have replaced young black males as having the highest risk of suicide."

According to Schwerin, when kids feel alienated, they have more risk from negative involvements. "We want the kids to know they have options. It helps kids feel hopeful and feel they have choices.

"We have a really strong skating program, whether they hockey skate or figure skate. It's positive activity with lots of parental involvement. (They learn) how to work in a team and we try to keep it affordable, make the cost of entry as low as possible. Then make it as fun as possible to keep kids coming back. They learn skills, learn to be team players, have good manners and the responsibility to be a good citizen."

These thoughts are echoed by the YMCA Membership Director Josh Gonzales. In a positive environment, there are fewer temptations from gang affiliations.

"Kids are looking for acceptance, a family and someone to protect them," he said. According to Gonzales, the Y provides that atmosphere.

These relationships help individuals learn and grow and that empowers them to make a difference in whole neighborhoods, according to Nancy Carter, coordinator of Commitment to Community.

C2C engages with people in neighborhoods and helps them take ownership of the situation. "We listen to what the people are saying. They are volunteering and committing to be part of the solution."

She agreed with Schwerin that positive activities and experiences can help young people develop relationships outside of gangs.

Like the activities offered by the YWCA and other organizations, these neighborhood programs are not specifically designated to deter gang involvement, but provide that in addition to immediate goals.

According to Carter, a big success story is the Washington Park neighborhood. Now the neighborhood has enjoyable pastimes to attract youths in an area with a history of gang concerns. A variety of activities include help with homework, as well as an annual Children's Day.

"A very important component to this is to create relationships with the kids so they learn to trust us," she said. Underlying that, the most important thing is to learn there are good choices and teach common sense decision-making.

Partnerships are crucial in providing a network to help area youths.

"We are currently co-running the Washington Park program with Commitment to Community," said Angela Potts, recreation coordinator for the city of Walla Walla Parks and Recreation Department. "We provide the toys, equipment and the staff as well. I know for a fact the kids are going there to avoid the gangs."

The Parks and Recreation Department has a summer program with free lunches in four Walla Walla parks. Sports and activities camps are also available.

"There are a lot of really good kids out there who need a place to hang out and be. They know us. They keep track to make sure we're going to be there," Potts said. "They know if we're there in the parks the gangs aren't going to be there. We don't allow it. It's a safe place they can go and they're not going to be harassed by the gang people."

At the local Camp Fire USA office, Executive Director Karen Wolf said, "Some things aren't measurable. However, I think we all are aware that the after-school hours present the greatest danger. There's less supervision and the kids are more vulnerable. Those hours present the highest teen pregnancy rates."

As a response to this, Camp Fire established after-school programs and summer programs to provide a safe alternative.

According to Wolf, Camp Fire follows basic values and principles to create the kind of positive environment and sense of belonging that provides a natural deterrent to gang involvement. This environment -- and the focus on each child's talents and interests as well as providing entertaining and educational activities -- helps strengthen self confidence, build communication skills and helps direct youths toward balanced, healthy lifestyles.

"We offer an environment where all children have the possibility of success, regardless of their background or family's financial standing. Through a variety of enrichment activities, we bring out the best qualities in our kids and foster a healthy, positive self-image," Wolf said.

The Community Center For Youth also nurtures young people with positive activities, according to Executive Director Gary Lunden. "We have already put some wheels in motion with our leadership program."

According to Lunden, this program helps young people learn leadership skills for positive activities.

The organization operates out of St. Patrick Church, 408 W. Poplar St., Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

"The kids tell us what they want to do to really engage them and keep them busy," Lunden explained.

Like other organizations CCY works with partnerships to bring alternatives to the area's young people. One partner is Whitman College's Youth Adventure Program.

"I hear there are about 100 kids interested in helping," he said.

He agreed with Potts that you must nurture trust, so they focus on games and activities to build that trust. The young people have plenty of input into the activities offered.

"The kids have expressed an interest in learning about cooking and nutrition. So we are working with the WSU Extension office in partnership, also with Americorps. If you keep the kids engaged they don't have time to get into any other activities and friendships," Lunden said.

The Walla Walla Public Library offers an assortment of activities to encourage families to read, according to Liz George, young people's librarian. The Summer Reading Program provides incentives and prizes such as a free book, for completing a specific amount of reading.

Families are encouraged to spend time together reading. Story times also offer families a way to get youngsters involved in enriching activities at an early age, paving the way for more positive choices as they mature.

Karlene Ponti can be reached at karleneponti@wwub.com or 526-8324.

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