Youth programs key in preventing gang recruitment

by Michelle Saxton
Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Staff photo by Cole Dittmer 

Wilmington Police Department Public Information Officer Linda Rawley speaks to the League of Women Voters of the Lower Cape Fear at McAlister’s Deli on Monday, Jan. 27, about gang issues the City of Wilmington is facing. 

Providing more community and recreational activities may be among solutions in helping prevent youth from joining gangs, a Wilmington Police Department spokeswoman has said.

“Programming is going to be key, giving young people something to do,” Linda Rawley told members and guests attending a League of Women Voters of the Lower Cape Fear meeting Monday, Jan. 27, at McAlister’s Deli in Wilmington.

In terms of addressing gang-related issues, Rawley praised law enforcement officials for increased patrolling efforts, public housing officials for enforcing leases, after-school programs for tutoring students, churches for offering space for community activities and technology for monitoring gunshots fired. 

But she said the city needs more facilities like the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center, particularly for latchkey children who are on their own after school or in the summer.

“If I have someone standing on the corner coming in my neighborhood who is doing something I see positive — they’re giving money, they’re taking me under their wing, they’re telling me, ‘Come on, I’ve got something for you to do,’ — they’re taking the place of the community programs, the traditional standard family,” Rawley said, adding that sometimes youth are recruited into gangs as early as elementary school.

She emphasized that is not always the case, as some children are simply curious about the hype and stigma of gangs.

“But then you have a lot of kids who are looking for something, they’re looking for somebody,” Rawley said.

She tied part of today’s issues with gangs to the crack cocaine epidemic in the late 1970s and early 1980s. 

The nation launched an intense war on drugs, she said.

“Nobody really thought about the children of these drug addicts,” Rawley said, later adding, “If we fast forward 20 years later these are the children we’re dealing with today, a lot of them.”

Losing some community recreational facilities to budget cuts added to the problem, she said.

League member Maggie Parish asked about focusing more funds toward youth, particularly early childhood development.

“We really need to start so young, we need to start before preschool,” Parish said. “I don’t think there’s any excuse for saying we don’t have money.”

Good early childhood development is one of the greatest intervention strategies, and it sometimes takes a community to build a family foundation, Rawley said.

The city of Wilmington has held four community conversations so far to address gang violence — through education, health, economics and family. 

The Wilmington Chamber of Commerce hosted a focused breakfast meeting on the same topic last week. See related story on page 2.

Two more are scheduled for next month — Feb. 10 at D.C. Virgo Preparatory Academy, which will include an agency fair of area nonprofits, and Feb. 25 at the MLK Center, which will include a youth panel.

More children are growing up with single parents, United Way of the Cape Fear Area President Chris Nelson said in a Tuesday, Jan. 28, phone interview.

“That is clearly part of the problem,” Nelson said. “Gangs are giving young children something that they’re not getting at home, perhaps that is a feeling of belonging.”

But nonprofits are offering more opportunities now than in the past, Nelson said, noting the DREAMS of Wilmington public arts program, the Kids Making It woodworking program and the United Way’s Blue Ribbon Commission on the Prevention of Youth Violence.

“It’s both engaging the children with something positive and it’s giving them something more than just academics,” Nelson said of initiatives that include the commission’s Youth Enrichment Zone program to help low-income and at-risk youth in the north side of downtown Wilmington. “It could be band, it could be arts, it could be some sports activity.”

Funds were being raised to include a summer Youth Enrichment Zone program at D.C. Virgo that includes outreach from other nonprofits and offers academics, nutrition and cultural activities, United Way officials said.

“We have to work to increase those opportunities for those kids,” Nelson said. “This town has some great, great services. We just need the community to step up and invest more in those activities.”


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