Monday, March 19 , 2018, 3:00 am | Fair 41º


Local News

Program Gives Youths a Fighting Chance, One Mentor at a Time

Santa Barbara's Fighting Back Mentor Program is raising funds to hire an advocate to combat the recruitment of youths into street gangs

For Catherine Remak, becoming a mentor means she doesn’t always know what to say.

The morning radio show host became a mentor two months ago with the Fighting Back Mentor Program. Now, she spends time with a 10-year-old girl who is the youngest of five children who lost their mom in a car accident a year ago.

“I don’t know exactly what to say when she tells me she cries when she thinks about her mom,” she said.

But maybe, just being there is enough. Remak often tears up quietly when she drops off her mentee at her house after their time together. “It’s the kind of feeling that happens when you know you’re at the right place at the right time,” she said.

Drawing more people into that feeling was the aim of a fundraising dinner Tuesday at Stella Mare’s in Santa Barbara. The event was a small one, but it brought in heavy hitters such as Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce Dudley, county Supervisor Janet Wolf, Superior Court Judge George Eskin, Assembly candidate Das Williams and former Assemblywoman Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara.

Fighting Back, a 15-year-old school-based mentorship program, targets youths ages 8 to 14 in high-risk neighborhoods. Tuesday’s event was all part of an effort to raise $50,000 to fund the salary of one full-time mentor advocate. The person who fills the position will work specifically to combat the recruitment of youths into Santa Barbara street gangs.

The event raised $9,100, and the support behind it may signify a tipping point in terms of the community’s attitude toward gang activity.

“You can’t live in one of the richest places on the planet and turn a blind eye to this,” said Greg Boller, a deputy district attorney spearheading the effort to raise funds for the position.

For two years, Boller managed the DA’s truancy program, which eventually was shelved by budget woes. After working with that program, “it was clear to me that more needed to be done,” he said, adding that in a community with so many resources and nonprofit organizations, there’s a disconnect.

There are already 108 mentor-mentee matches within the program, and the mentor advocate position would reach out to another 26 youths who come from “high-risk” situations, such as having one or more family member involved in a gang. Boller said the transition years, ages 10 to 12, are key.

It’s an issue that isn’t going away, and law enforcement estimates that 750 known gang members live in South County.

Gang presence was even tackled by the county Grand Jury in 2008. The report was prompted by two homicides that occurred the previous year involving juvenile gang members. The jury recommended that community groups, city government, schools and law enforcement continue their public-private partnerships to address the issue.

“In the jury’s opinion, there is no other way that remedies to this pernicious problem can be sustained,” the report stated.

Another gang-related homicide at Arroyo Burro Beach earlier this year also has kept the issue on people’s minds.

“Although we may have a small percentage of gang members, the havoc they can create is irreversible,” said Ed Cue, a former gang intelligence agent who now works for as a delinquency prevention program director for the Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse. He said catching young people early before they’re “jumped in” — or initiated into gangs — is key.

Cue, who was born and raised in Santa Barbara, said things have changed since his childhood.

“This community did not have the social or racial distinctions it has today,” he said. More middle-class residents moved to less expensive areas such as Lompoc and Santa Maria, and with that “some loss of empathy took place,” he said.

“Most of us in this room were born on third base,” speaker W. Mitchell said at Tuesday’s event, adding that most of the event’s attendees were probably college-educated and had a number of adults invested in their lives as they grew up. But for many children in Santa Barbara, those things are absent.

“The resisting is not hard when you’re on third base,” he said. “But it’s tough when you’re standing at home plate.”

Mitchell speaks periodically at Los Prietos Boys Camp, and has been known to take a dozen or so boys to a friend’s luxury box to watch the Los Angeles Dodgers.

For many of the boys, they’ve never seen a professional game. Many have never left Santa Barbara County. And with Mitchell along, the experience is packed with meaning. He recalls pointing to Jackie Robinson’s number hanging in the outfield.

“We talked about a man who was always told he couldn’t,” Mitchell said. “I asked the boys how many times you’ve heard you can’t.” For the boys from Los Prietos, “there was nobody there when they were 8 years old.”

Sissy Taran, who has been mentoring for about eight years, began mentoring her husband’s mentee, Michael, after her husband passed away. Then in fifth grade, Michael is now a freshman at San Marcos High School. He comes over to cook with Taran, and she’s about to start teaching him how to drive.

“Now he says, ‘You’re going to college with me,’” Taran said.

She encouraged potential mentors not to be intimidated by the time commitment, and that one hour a week can have big impacts on a young life.

“You are working one to one with a child, and they don’t have to compete with anybody else,” she said. “You have no idea how much your one hour a week will change a child’s life.” 

For more information about becoming a mentor or to donate to the mentor advocate position, click here, or contact program coordinator Juliana Lee at 805.963.1433 x113 or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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