Santa Maria officials have managed to get the Abel Maldonado Community Youth Center into the National Safe Places Network. When kids and their parents see the distinctive black-and-yellow sign at the entrance, they know it’s a safe haven.
Why is this important, to the youngsters, their families and the community? We can count the ways.
There are about 1.5 million members in around 33,000 youth gangs in the United States. Nearly half those gang members are 18 years or younger. Almost a quarter of the youngsters are girls.
Kids get motivated to join a street gang for a variety of reasons, most of them related to poverty, family problems and a general pervasive lack of self-confidence coupled with peer pressure. When a child feels like they aren’t part of a real family, the tendency is to find a substitute family. Gang leaders are acutely aware of that powerful hook.
There are ways families and a community can defend against youth gang enticements. Here are what many of the experts recommend:
As a parent, be aware of the signals your child is sending. Do you live in a neighborhood where known gang activity is occurring? Does your child have too much idle time or his or her hands? If so, confront your child, talk it out.
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Spend as much time with your sons and daughters as possible. That’s easier said than done in a world in which it often takes family members working multiple jobs just to pay the bills.
Try to set good examples. Be a role model, someone for your children to look up to.
Get your kids involved in something important. After-school programs are helpful, as are programs offered by community organizations and churches. Sports is an excellent outlet.
That’s where the Maldonado center comes into the picture, and it’s accessible to just about everyone in the Santa Maria Valley at 600 S. McClelland St. Here is just a taste of what kids can do there — sports of all kinds, aquatics in a spacious pool, teen-help programs of all sorts, arts, special-interest classes. You name it, and the Maldonado center provides it.
And it’s not just for kids. There are an array of adult programs, which dovetails with what the experts say about keeping youth out of the gang environment and parent/child engagement. That works both ways, with parents keeping a close eye on their sons and daughters, and those youngsters seeing their mom and dad participate in wholesome, fun activities and programs.
The object is to eliminate as many negative aspects of being a teenager in today’s world as possible, and substitute extracurricular activities that engage a kid’s mind and body. The more of that kind of stuff they’re into, the less likely they are to stray into a world from which too many kids never return.
It’s also vitally important that you explain, fully, what the gang life entails. It may look exciting to a kid to be part of a criminal organization, but the reality is starkly different, violent and ultimately life’s dead end. Make sure to tell your child you don’t want to see them arrested, hurt or killed — a message of caring that needs to stick in their heads.
Bravo to the city of Santa Maria’s decision makers, and especially the work of the city’s Recreation and Parks Department to help eliminate what, at one time, was a very serious youth gang problem in the city. The problem is still with us, but the community is fighting back.