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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.

Ms. Ahlas spoke about Roseland University Prep, a charter school in the Roseland district helping students reach their goals of college, trade school and certificate programs.

One of the ways she said members of the audience could help is to provide mentoring and internship possibilities to the bright and eager-to-learn students graduating from the school.

Robert Florez is the program director of Sunny Hills Services, and he talked about his program as well and how to get involved. It takes youth that are identified as gang members out on wilderness trips – for many the first time they have seen snow, rafted and camped.

Mr. Schrader said the forum was as much a call to action as it was an education.

“We don’t intend to merely participate in discussions and follow the trend of talking about issues. We want to lead discussions and produce change. We take being a leader as a responsibility. We don’t offer the notion that we are an expert on the subjects. We want to move this issue to a more positive platform.”

The message of the event was, “What can we do to better integrate all parts of our community to create a healthy environment for all?”

It is to the credit of Exchange Bank, the panelists and the steering committee to bring this issue before the exact people who can help make a difference, the community leaders, educators and elected officials.

The steering committee was comprised of Dr. Robert Agrella, Gail Ahlas, Dr. Ruben Armiñana, William Arnone, Ellen Jones Bauer, Dr. Robert Benavides Jr., Marcus Benedetti, Brad Bollinger, Carl Campbell, Supervisor Efren Carrillo, Don Chigazola, Walter Collins, Robert Florez, Nick Frey, Barry Friedman, Pete Golis, Mayor Susan Gorin, Judy House, Roy Hurd, Pat Kilkenny,  City Councilman Ernesto Olivares, Bill Reinking, Rita Scardaci, Willie Tamayo, Jamie Thistlethwaite, Vic Trione, Gerald Villareal, Tim Wallace, Larry Wasem, County Superintendent of Schools Carl Wong and Supervisor Shirlee Zane.

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Jenna Loceff is a Business Journal staff writer, jloceff@busjrnl.com, 707-521-4259.