Exchange Bank leads effort for understanding, action on growing problem
“We don’t intend to merely participate in discussions and follow the trend of talking about issues. We want to move this issue to a more positive platform.” --Bill Schrader
It was a veritable "Who's Who" of Sonoma County at Exchange Bank's recent lunchtime forum entitled "The Anatomy of Gangs."
Leaders of the community gathered to listen to a panel on gangs, their influence in Sonoma County and the importance of leaders of their caliber to take on this serious community issue.
Gail Ahlas, superintendent of the Roseland Unified School District; Robert Benavides Jr., Ed.D., of Professional Psychology Corp.; David Florez, former gang member; Robert Florez, program director of Sunny Hills Services; and Sgt. Ray Navarro of the Santa Rosa Police Department spoke to 175 people about the devastation as well as possible answers to the growing issue of gangs.
There are roughly 3,000 registered gang members in Sonoma County, said Sgt. Navarro. They are comprised of mostly Latino gangs, but there are a number of others including Asian, white supremacist, woman-led gangs and more. He discussed the efforts of police enforcement as well as drug-related crimes taking place not just in known gang areas, but increasingly in other areas as gangs are becoming more mobile.
Dr. Benavides works with gang members and their children to try to come up with constructive ways of dealing with some of the issues of being in one and keeping the younger generation out.
The main point Dr. Benavides made was that everyone gathered in the room was a successful professional and there were moments in their lives when they were given a choice and an opportunity. That is much the same in that kids that end up in gangs are given a choice and an opportunity – just a different kind of choice and a different kind of opportunity.
He encouraged the audience members to find ways they can provide opportunities and choices to young people that would possibly otherwise end up in gangs.
Bill Schrader, president and chief executive officer of Exchange Bank, mentioned time, talent and treasury as the three things that we as a community can give to combat this problem.
Then he brought up David Florez, a former gang member who talked candidly about his experience in gangs, his imprisonment, his experience in prison gangs and his eventual escape from that life. He cited his mother’s sickness and turning to prayer as his means to getting out of gangs.
“No man can serve two masters,” he said. He said after performing prison gang “hits” he would go back to his cell and pray that his mother would make it through her illness. One day, he recognized it was hypocritical to perform a prison hit and then pray for something in his life.
He has dedicated his life to helping others get out of gangs as did two other panelists.
One area of focus is education, and the idea that if you give a child hope and show them that through hard work they can accomplish something, they are less likely to turn to gang life. Mr. Florez and Dr. Benavides noted that youth get the feeling of family and respect in a gang they might not find elsewhere.