Unchained from gangs

The Boston Global

The Boston Global

A work progam in Lynn for troubled youths helps them to separate their lives from crime, focus on their futures

By Steven Rosenberg
Globe Staff / July 26, 2009

With green T-shirts, jeans, and sneakers, the teenagers look like any other summer job crew that appears as a blur to passing motorists.

But these kids know they’re not like most other teens. For most, this is their first job; for many, this is the first time they’ve earned money legally. From a distance the group of 15 stand out as a hard workers; on their break, they quietly discuss a style of living they’re trying to leave behind.

“I’m a Blood,’’ says Sothon Alelo, referring to the gang he joined three years ago, when he was 13. “But, now I want to go to college.’’

The son of Cambodian immigrants, Alelo is one of six in the group who belong to a gang or were once a member of a gang. Like all of the others in the group, Alelo has been in and out of the court system.

The work program is funded by the Shannon Grant, a state subsidy that funnels money to communities to create educational programs to combat gang violence. In Lynn, the gang capital of the North Shore, there are some 35 gangs with an estimated 1,400 total members, said Lynn Police Sergeant Ed Nardone, who heads the Lynn police gang unit. The largest gangs are the Bloods and the Crips.

For three years, dozens of Lynn gang members and other teens at risk have worked for six weeks each summer in the city, earning minimum wage while landscaping city-owned property 20 hours a week. The rules are strict and there are few second chances: They have to be at work by 8:30 in the morning; there’s no smoking; no cellphones or iPods; no fighting.

The biggest problem, say supervisors, is when members of opposing gangs work together in groups. In mid-July, when the work crew first formed, Alelo and Tinh Pinch worked on opposite sides of the street and avoided each other for several days. But gradually, the two offered signs of respect to each other, an important peace offering, explained Pinch, who was a member of the Crips gang.

“Working with them I can see their struggle and relate it to mine,’’ says Pinch, who is 17 and entering 11th grade at Lynn English High School.

A few years ago, Pinch was “jumped in’’ by the Crips, an initiation that calls for gang members to pummel a new recruit for 30 seconds. While in the gang, Pinch was arrested several times on charges including trespassing and assault. Now he says he has seen too much violence and is out of the gang.

“I’m trying to erase the gang,’’ he says, reaching for a medallion on a chain around his neck. He shows the rest of the teens on the landscaping crew the image of his older brother Tony, who was killed in a drive-by shooting in Lynn last Halloween.

“My goal is to stay out of trouble and be a man, and to be a man it will take great effort,’’ says Pinch, whose parents came from Cambodia to Lynn two decades ago.

Like Aleo, Pinch now dreams of going to college. “I want to become an artist, because I’m pretty skilled at drawing,’’ he tells his work crew partner, Charlie Sang.

Sang is 14, soft-spoken, and considered a representative of the Crips, a step some teens take before becoming an official gang member. Pinch spends most of his workdays with Sang, counseling him to stay in school and avoid gang life.

The landscaping job is the first time Sang has ever been paid to work, and he’s surprised how tired he gets after cutting grass and pulling weeds from sidewalks. Right now, he equates having a job with success.

“I want to work because I ain’t got nothing else to do,’’ says Sang, who is 5-feet-4 and wears a black Los Angeles Dodgers cap every day. “I get hope out of it. I feel like a successful person.’’

Eugene Schneeberg, a pastor for Straight Ahead Ministries, believes the program serves to boost the self-esteem of the gang members. “The more they can be together, the better. Because when they leave here, when they see each other on the street, hopefully they’ll give each other a pass. They can’t assault them tonight and then come back to work tomorrow. The idea of them having something to lose is vitally important,’’ said Schneeberg, whose program also receives Shannon Grant funding and provides caseworkers to follow up with the teens during the year.

“I think by the end, we teach them accountability,’’ said George Bakas, a truant officer in the Lynn schools who helps oversee the program. “And to have them working in the same vicinity is a good start. Hopefully, soon, they’ll have a conversation. Just a few days ago they were on different sides of the yard, and now they’ve realized they’re here to work and that it’s different from the past.’’

During a short break, the kids sit at the corner of the Lynnway and talk about what they hope to do with their summer paychecks.

“I want to buy a car,’’ said Pinch. “Anybody know who’s selling a car?’’

Janese Medrano has different plans for her paycheck: clothes, diapers, and wipes, because her 3-month-old son, Ezekiel, is growing fast. “I need food also,’’ says Medrano, who never joined a gang but has been locked up before for fighting by the Department of Youth Services.

At 16, Medrano says she’s focused on staying in school and wants to go to Salem State and become an emergency room nurse. She says all of the challenges she faces – working, taking care of her son, avoiding trouble – will help her achieve her goals.

A few feet away, a muscular teen who calls himself Gully nods and says he’s trying to start his life over. Since he was 11, he says, he’s been stealing. “I started hot-wiring cars and would sell them to chop shops. When I was 14, I was a master at it,’’ he says. Now, he wants to go to a school where he can write poetry.

“I’m just a plain person, really,’’ he says. “I’m not boring, but I’m always, like, serious. There’s nothing really funny about me. After my father got shot dead when I was 3, there’s nothing really funny. You know what I mean?’’

Posted by on Jul 29 2009. Filed under News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

1 Comment for “Unchained from gangs”

  1. That sounds like a good program. Much love and respect to those young souljaz trying to change their lives for the better and anyone trying to help the cause.

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