Thursday, December 30, 1999
Standing amidst images of Cesar Chavez, Mayan relics, and a full wall of awards, Brian Contreras says that the honor he values most isn''t in a frame. "Last month a clean-cut, good-looking kid stopped me on the street. He said, ''I know you don''t recognize me now, but you helped me a lot. You told me to think about if I wanted my kids to grow up with the gangster life.'' Now that young man holds a management job and has a family. That''s what this is all about."
Contreras, executive director of the East Salinas-based Second Chance Youth Program, learned about second chances the hard way. "I''ve lived on both sides of the tracks," he says. "I hardly remember my childhood in Modesto. I spent most of it incarcerated for petty crime and then landed myself at Soledad State Prison."
Upon his 1981 release from Soledad, Contreras moved to Salinas, determined to make a fresh start. "I''ve tried to pick apart my past to figure out what helped me straighten out. The only thing I can pinpoint is my family''s support. I tell the kids, ''Your barrio might feel like your surrogate family now, but it''s your family that''s really there for you.''"
Originally intending to follow his parents'' footsteps into a career in business, Contreras was sidetracked by the glaring problems of youth crime and gang activity in his East Salinas neighborhood. Noting the lack of services and attention targeting this high-risk population of young people, Contreras says, "I saw scary things, I saw my life all over again. I thought, ''This can''t happen. This has gotta stop.''"
Since that moment of realization in 1988, Contreras has dedicated himself to raising awareness about rising youth violence, and seeking a means to reach out to gang members and other high risk youth.
"We faced a lot of racism, apathy, and denial. People felt that youth crime was just an East Side problem. I had to convince them that it would affect everyone, that it was everyone''s problem. The 1988 murder of a young Latino man on his way home from night school brought this issue to a forefront."
Opening a makeshift office in his garage and recruiting a small volunteer staff, Contreras began outreach into the gang community to understand their reality and their needs. He secured funding from the city of Salinas (through Youth Gang Prevention and Intervention Services) to launch an intervention program called Second Chance.
While other groups focus on prevention work, Contreras affirms that intervention is just as crucial. "People make mistakes and they will keeping making mistakes. But this is not a lost generation of kids. We''ve turned enough lives around to know they are not lost.
"Our reputation as ex-whatevers made it hard to get started," Contreras says. But after much persistence, North Salinas High asked for help in establishing neutrality in the school to prevent further gang fighting and rivalry. Their first-hand experience with troubled adolescents helped Second Chance staffers counsel students into a more peaceful learning environment, and soon other schools invited them to work with their students.
Now, a decade later, seven well-trained Second Chance staff members spend their days counseling young people, talking them through problems, sharing life experiences, and helping hundreds of students resist violence.
Contreras estimates there are 1,000-1,500 gang members in Salinas alone, and that many of them are not in school, making them harder to reach.
"We need to expand our outreach and strengthen our links with the youth," Contreras says. "But that''s what we''re here for. We do this work out of love and compassion, and that''s all we need."
To reach Second Chance, call 758-2501 or 758-4820.