Tahoe takes a jab at gang life | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Tahoe takes a jab at gang life

Referred to by social workers as a rural city with urban problems, South Lake Tahoe has more than its share of challenges.

In a 1990 U.S. Census report, low-income and poverty-level residents made up 47 percent of the city’s population. In 1992, University of California researchers reported that the “incidence of single-parent families in South Lake Tahoe was among the highest in the nation.”

Large numbers of low-paying, unskilled, seasonal jobs combined with limited low-income housing has made child care a problem for more than a few.

Is it any wonder that gangs are part of the equation?

“The community needs to stop looking away from this problem,” said Kari Renfro, outreach counselor at Tahoe Youth and Family Services. “We can’t turn our backs on our young people.”

But despite what some label community denial, Renfro said there are many local agencies making a serious attempt to tackle juvenile crime head-on.

“What’s unique about this town is our ability to collaborate – you don’t always see that,” said Lake Tahoe Unified School District Superintendent Rich Fischer. “By getting different agencies to work together we have a much better chance of being successful.”

Fischer also sits on the board of Tahoe Prevention Network, an organization designed to provide needed human services to the community through grants and agency collaboration.

TPN now allocates program funds for two large grants from the state offices of Substance Abuse Prevention and Child Abuse Prevention.

More than $180,000 annually goes into the Family Advocate Program, said Fischer, which targets at-risk elementary school children and their families.

“Advocates go into the homes and work with families,” he said. “We really need to focus on the kids at the elementary level. Those with siblings or neighbors that are in gangs really need intervention.”

In addition, the Office of Child Abuse Prevention’s grant, known as OCAP, has allowed for $804,000 annually over five years to fund five community components. Roughly 15 collaborative agencies work to offer the following programs:

— Club Timberwolf – Designed to provide counseling, recreational services and tutoring for boys ages 10 to 14 who live with their mothers in single-parent families.

— Families and Schools Together (FAST) – A collaborative prevention and parent involvement program where whole families participate in activities aimed at strengthening families and empowering parents.

— Family Solutions – Four local agencies – including the probation department, mental health, social services and the Sierra Recovery Center – work with families with youths ages 8 to 17 who have been cited for criminal activities. It is designed to instill values, teach skills and resolve family problems.

— Family Resource Center – Located at Bijou Community School, the center provides support to families during pregnancy, infancy and early childhood.

— After School Program – The Boys and Girls Club of Lake Tahoe provides a safe environment and strives to promote the health, educational, social, vocational and character development of the community’s young people.

“These are all prevention programs that are helping tremendously,” said Fischer. “In addition, I can’t say enough about the school resource officers – they’re invaluable. We’re always concerned from year to year that we won’t be able to provide funding.”

The Police Athletic League is also closely involved with the schools, offering recreation alternatives to youths like skiing, boxing, archery, soccer and wrestling. “It’s designed to get kids and officers to interact in a positive way,” said South Lake Tahoe Police Officer Pete Van Arnum. “We also want to be positive role models.”

The AmeriCorps mentoring program is also working with local schools to provide support and role models for at-risk students.

Programs where young people are made to feel they are contributing to their community are a critical element, said Renfro. For example, South Tahoe High School offers a peer counseling program as well as Teen Court, where students both represent and sentence peers with first-time, non-violence offenses. In addition, the school offers school-to-work programs, enabling students to obtain sorely needed job skills.

In Douglas County, Keith Logan of the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office has been teaching Gang Resistance Education and Training (GREAT) at Kingsbury Middle School for the past two years. The nine-week program covers topics like victims’ rights, peer pressure, how gangs distribute drugs, personal responsibility and goal setting.

“I know some of the kids I see in class are already involved in gang stuff,” said Logan. “But at least now they have information they can draw upon if they need to.”

The group counseling offered at Tahoe Youth and Family Services has created a safe place for at-risk youths to vent their frustrations, said Renfro, who runs six teen groups. “Two of the biggest teen issues are a sense of belonging and being heard,” she said. “We develop trust, a rapport and the opportunity for kids to speak without judgment. That can make all the difference.”

How do we keep our local young people from getting into trouble?

Perhaps it’s too easy to forget the obvious – ask them.

More than likely they’ll give you a straight answer.

“We need more teen support groups and counseling like this,” said a member of Renfro’s group. “More teen hang-outs, more teen activities and jobs.”

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