An Alternative to Gangs and Drugs : 9 Catholics Bound for Italy for Lessons in Leadership

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Times Staff Writer

Manuel Sanchez grew up in East Los Angeles in a neighborhood controlled by gang activity. He learned at an early age to follow the orders of others.

“Whatever the gang wanted, we would do,” said Sanchez, 22, who left the gang when he moved to Bell Gardens with his family in 1979. “If they wanted us to steal, we would steal. If they wanted us to beat somebody up, we’d do that, too.”

Now Sanchez is a member of another organization, a youth outreach group he joined after his family began attending St. Gertrude’s small parish on Garfield Avenue several years ago.


The outreach group organizes church-sponsored programs to offer teen-agers and young adults living in relatively poor, largely Latino Southeast communities a positive alternative to gangs and drugs.

Sanchez says his participation in the church group is showing him how to lead his peers in the philosophy of the group’s mentor, St. John Bosco: Save souls by good example. The saint founded the Catholic teaching order, the Salesian Society, during his 19th-Century ministry in Italy.

Sanchez, who plans to be a teacher when he graduates from Cerritos College next year, hopes to hone his leadership skills before the summer is out. On Monday, he and eight other members of the Southeast-based Catholic outreach group will leave to attend a special Salesian leadership conference in Turin in northern Italy.

The nine-member group was chosen recently to represent the Western United States at the two-week series of seminars that begin this week and are based on the teachings of the saint.

The worldwide Salesian Society planned the one-time International Youth Congress to commemorate the saint’s death in 1888. He founded the Catholic teaching order in 1859, and was canonized in 1934.

About 2,500 young Catholic adults, representing 100 countries, are scheduled to attend the event.


The nine Southeast representatives will join six East Coast representatives and one Canadian in New York before traveling to Italy.

“This is really, truly an honor for these dedicated young people,” said Sister Maria Arroyo, who will travel with the U.S. and Canadian representatives.

The St. Gertrude’s-based youth group was chosen over other Salesian youth groups that applied from as far east as the Mississippi River, Arroyo said. It was selected on the basis of its extensive involvement in various outreach programs sponsored by the parish. “These are top-caliber people,” Arroyo said.

Group Is Active

Among other things, the St. Gertrude’s outreach group sponsors retreats, where participants pray together and discuss the precepts of the Catholic church, weekend dances and local seminars on the teachings of the saint, who preached that “youth is the window to the future.”

Adriana Rendon, 22, of Cudahy, a recent graduate of Loyola Marymount University, said she hopes to take back to her community an understanding of the diverse problems her peers in other countries face.

“We want some input for our community,” said Rendon, who recently became a counselor for battered women. “With drugs, gangs and all the other problems we have every day in our community, we want to say that we are not alone in facing problems.”


“We want to be realistic that we cannot come home and change the world,” Rendon said. “But when we come back, we want to show (the community) that there are people willing to help.”

Rendon and Sanchez will leave Monday morning with Martha Del Rio, 20, of Whittier; Tony Valencia, 22, of Commerce; Greg Mucino, 17, of Rosemead; Vincent Vazquez, 25, of El Monte; Norberto Ibarra, 23, of Pico Rivera; Teresa Bartoli, 24, of Bellflower, and Mary Frances Bass, 21, of Bell.

Group Has Grown

The outreach group was formed at St. Gertrude’s more than four years ago by Bass, Del Rio, Rendon, Valencia and Sanchez. It has grown to more than a dozen members. During retreats, the group teaches as many as 90 teen-agers in the surrounding communities the values of Christian living and education.

“Look, we’ve grown up in what you would call a crime-ridden, poor area,” Valencia said. “We can discuss those issues (with other conference participants).

“But other people from around the world have their problems. Hopefully we can learn to understand one another and bring something back for our people to share.”

Although planning for the international conference began two years ago, the group was not informed that it had been chosen until April. The participants began scrambling for donations to help defray the $2,000-per-person cost.


After only limited luck in their fund-raising efforts, the group was finally given a loan to pay for the tickets and lodging.

“We’re going to be fund raising for the rest of our lives,” Valencia joked during a weekly planning session held by the group.