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Youth programs a start for solving community gang problems

A week ago, we were introduced to two young men whose lives hung in the balance as the matriarchs of their families spoke up to defend them. St. Petersburg's Midtown and the Ridgecrest neighborhood near Largo are miles apart, but in recent weeks two young men have had to deal with a harsh reality: Casual acquaintances can be harmful.

Maurice Hall, a star athlete at Gibbs High School, was shot in a drive-by shooting while walking with a friend. Justin Wiley was wrongly labeled by law enforcement officials.

By all accounts, both had avoided crime, drugs and gangs. But they both are victims of drive-bys, albeit different kinds. One took a bullet; the other's reputation is under attack.

Hall aspires to play football on the college level. Wiley, a drifter of sorts, was trying to find his way after losing a job.

One was pierced by a bullet that ended a promising football season. Thankfully, doctors say his wounds will heal and he should be able to play again next year.

The other suffered damage to his reputation after the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office labeled him a gang member. He was put on a gang list after being seen with a relative and childhood friend in a neighborhood where gangs are prevalent.

It brings to mind a warning I overheard while on an assignment years ago: "If the police don't get you, the undertaker will …"

Parents, neighbors and some community advisers often used such warnings, hoping to steer a wayward youth out of the streets — away from gangs and other vices.

But in these two instances, the young men were not on that path.

The question then becomes: How does a community stem the tide of senseless shootings and change the perceptions of some members of law enforcement who may wrongly label young men as gang members?

The answers are difficult.

Gangs do exist in St. Petersburg and Largo.

And solving problems that gangs present should not be left for law enforcement alone. This is a neighborhood and community problem.

Last week's victim was a star football player. A new week cometh.

Someone should have been able to offer Hall's mother, Sharon, clues to this senseless act. No mother should have to barge into a neighborhood party demanding to know who shot her son. This incident calls for the community to come together and rally beside her.

For others who may be looking for things that could help steer young people into more positive outlets, there are programs out there offering help.

The AKA Academy offers two programs, Gems and Pathfinders, that help teenagers be resilient to challenges and hardships while developing leadership skills through mentoring, educational development and community service.

The programs are a collaborative effort of the local chapters of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority and Omega Psi Phi fraternity.

Last week, at a kickoff event at the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum, more than 150 students, with parents in tow, packed the facility for the opportunity to participate.

A similar program that targets middle school boys is offered at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, which owns the Tampa Bay Times. The Write Field is a mentoring program that focuses on academics and life skills. The program is a collaborative effort of the Poynter Institute, Tampa Bay Rays, community groups, local businesses, schools and law enforcement. This program is looking for mentors.

These programs may not provide all the answers for problems in the community, but they are a good start.

Sandra J. Gadsden can be reached at sgadsden@tampabay.com or at (727) 893-8874 and on Twitter at @StPeteSandi.

Youth programs a start for solving community gang problems 09/22/12 [Last modified: Saturday, September 22, 2012 4:31am]

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