Stop the Violence: Program tackles gangs, guns

June 4, 2009 (CHICAGO) One program in Chicago, however, is working to get both off the streets.

The program is aimed squarely at juveniles and their families, kids aged 13 to 17 who are admitted gang members and have been charged with a crime - often crimes that involve guns.

"I was involved in the streets, you know hanging out and everything. One day, like a regular day hanging out, the police got me. They charged me with aggravated battery," said Omar Arvizo, 17.

"I caught a case around last year in March. I was walking with my girl and I had a pistol on me and I only got locked up for 30 days," said Marcos Martinez, 18.

Omar Arvizo and Marcos Martinez have a lot in common. Both are students at Farragut High School. They live in Little Village and admit having gang ties. Both have had serious brushes with the law. They also say their court ordered correction may be the best thing to ever happen to them.

"I got sent to the program, Urban Life Skills. After that, I been attending it. I haven't gotten locked up since then," said Marcos.

"Since I started going, I've been going to classes for drugs, marijuana, alcohol," said Omar."

Substance abuse services for teens are just one part of the urban life skills program. Friday nights are dedicated to gang intervention.

On one night recently, the guest speaker is a Pilsen area funeral director who describes burying some 200 children due to gang and gun violence. But the program is not all tough love.

"At first they don't trust you. They kind of look at you and you do it more by example. You're just there for them," said Vince Torres, mentor/former math teacher.

Mentoring plays a critical role. The program's director says the mentors often pick up where the parents leave off.

"It's broken homes, it's different things. Mom and dad have to work a ton. Their parenting role is kind of put on the back burner," said Matt Demateo, director, Urban Life Skills Gang Intervention Program.

It may be this added investment into the lives of at-risk teens that is helping get results. Urban Life Skills is boasting an 80 percent success rate as measured by participants not re-offending or violating probation.

"They have mentors who are committed, who are consistent with the youth, and who are doing these pro-social activities that we feel contribute to the kids' life long experience that they can have," said Carmen Casas, deputy chief probation officer.

Art Guerrero describes himself as a recovering drug addict who has served several stints in prison. He says he volunteers as a mentor to keep these kids from making his mistakes.

"They don't know what they're getting into. They think smoking weed and drinking is fun. They don't realize that that's a gateway. That's an opening to so many more things. They don't know that. I didn't know that," said Art Guerrero.

Mentors spend time with the young men a minimum of three times a week -- that includes accompanying them to all court appearances. These young men say leaving gang life is tough. It helps to have support.

"I could've hurt somebody. They could've just pulled a gun on me too and they would've killed me or I'd kill them," said Marcos.

Urban Life Skills is run by a non-profit division of the new life community church. They also provide GED classes and family support services. Leaders say they have not received any outside funding to keep the program going.

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