Throughout the San Fernando Valley, and in Los Angeles County as a whole, a number of invaluable programs have given juveniles an effective alternative to street gang life. Now, unfortunately, some of the very same kinds of programs that have been applauded by the likes of U. S. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno are facing financial extinction, or a slow fiscal decline that will greatly impair their future efforts. There is much that can be done to support these programs.
One of them, the Los Angeles Police Department's Jeopardy Project, has helped 17-year-old Jose Brizuela avoid the temptation of the street gang life in his North Hills neighborhood. Through Jeopardy, Brizuela and about 1,000 other youths are coached in distance running, boxing, karate, ice hockey, drama and wrestling.
"The Jeopardy guys were the ones that really gave me the support to stick with it," said Brizuela, a B-average student and a campus leader at the Valley's James Monroe High School.
But Jeopardy depends on donations to purchase equipment, to rent facilities, and to pay for field trips. Last year, the program had raised $100,000, a figure that has dropped to just $30,000 this year.
GAPP, the Los Angeles County Probation Department's highly regarded Gang Awareness and Prevention Program, places probation officers in elementary and junior high schools to work with students who seem to be headed for trouble. It could cease to exist altogether.
New Directions for Youth is based in Van Nuys and its services are among the most comprehensive of these groups. New Directions runs school and peer counseling groups on 20 school campuses. It even provides job training and parenting classes. But it, too, has fallen on hard times, with an annual budget that has dropped from $2 million to $1.2 million. Matters could get much worse for this group in the future.
Private donations from citizens to these groups and others are important to their survival and effectiveness, but there is something else that can be done. That would be to support Proposition 172 on the statewide special election ballot in November. Proposition 172, the "Local Public Safety Protection and Improvement Act of 1993," would make permanent a half-cent sales tax that was enacted two years ago. It is not a new tax or a tax increase, and its proceeds are earmarked for local public safety programs.
If the state's voters do not support this measure, efforts such as the Gang Awareness and Prevention Program could go on the budgetary chopping block. The same funding helps ensure the viability of New Directions for Youth.
The need to support such organizations, through everything from volunteerism to donations of money and other resources, should be obvious in a county where gang membership is now believed to exceed 110,000.
And if you somehow think that gang membership is not much of a Valley problem, then guess again. An invaluable map produced by Community Youth Gang Services displays gangs by their names and by their turf. They are active in several parts of the West Valley, and so numerous in the East Valley that their names nearly obliterate the map beneath. What better way is there to demonstrate the need for groups that have proven their effectiveness in offering alternatives to young people?