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Sports: A Noozhawk Partnership with Santa Barbara Athletic Round Table, The Lab, and American Riviera Bank

Boys & Girls Club Provides Passports to Manhood

{mosimage}In a part of town known for gang activity, some Westside kids are on the right track.

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Making life choices can be tough if you’re a boy growing up in a working-class neighborhood. It can be particularly tough if you’re a working-class boy without a father figure who has seen friends and relatives join local gangs.

Carlos Guerrero knows. He grew up in Goleta’s Old Town, where the incomes tend to be lower and the temptation to do mischief, he said, is higher. At 28 and as program director of the Westside Boys & Girls Club in Santa Barbara, he’s no longer the kid in the shaky situation he once was, but it doesn’t stop him from seeing himself in the boys he mentors at the club through its Passport to Manhood program.

Billed as a “life skills” program, Passport to Manhood is targeted towards boys making that uncertain transition from boyhood to manhood — a time, Guerrero said, when choices really begin to matter. The program has been for years a staple of Boys & Girls Clubs across the country.

One need only look at recent gang-related stabbings and the young ages of the victims and the perpetrators to know how precarious life can be for lower-income boys on Santa Barbara’s Westside. But the problem is not just an economic one: Many kids from poorer neighborhoods do just fine. A big contributor to the gang problem, Guerrero said, is the boys’ lack of a strong and positive male role model. And that’s where Passport to Manhood comes in.

The activities aren’t very elaborate — a game, a field trip, or a group discussion, for instance — but the goals are specific: to address issues and situations that are bound to come up in the boys’ lives. The boys are given a passport to track their progress to maturity.

“They have to understand responsibility, and the effects of peer pressure,” said Guerrero, naming just a couple of the goals of the program. Sessions stress things like respect and avoiding drugs, and the cause and effect of one’s behavior.

“Many of these kids don’t have a father, or their fathers are either too busy working two or three jobs and don’t have time to spend with their sons,” Guerrero said. Worse yet, some kids’ fathers are in and out of jail. Either way, it leaves the impressionable youngsters with less than ideal role models and without someone to guide them.

“There can be a lot of anger in these boys, too,” Guerrero said. Take a boy with unexpressed resentment against his absent father, confusion at his out-of-control hormones, frustration at his lack of opportunity and you have a likely candidate for a gang, according to Guerrero.

“A lot of them also feel isolated because they can’t communicate with the larger community,” Guerrero said, explaining that many of the at-risk kids are youths of Hispanic descent who speak only Spanish at home and therefore may have limited English skills. They’ll find solidarity with others like them, even if it means those others are in gangs, he said.

“I like (the program),” said Anthony, one of Guerrero’s younger charges. “It’s fun.”

While what some of the boys know about their after-school time in the program is that it gives them something to do with friends their age, what they might not be always thinking of is that they’re learning to make good choices.{mosimage}

At the club one afternoon, for instance, the boys are playing basketball. But they aren’t just playing basketball: They’re learning to work as a team, they’re learning to listen to Guerrero’s coaching, they’re learning to trust one another, they’re learning to lead and follow, and they’re learning to win and lose gracefully — all things that translate into life.

For some of the kids, it’s a connection that could be the only thing that keeps them from going down the path of drugs and violence, Guerrero said.

“One of our kids has a brother who’s just out on the street, and constantly getting into trouble, and he’s here with us and doing great.”

For all their efforts and outreach, Guerrero knows it’s an uphill battle — even the park just beyond the club’s property is known to be a hangout for local miscreants. The club can’t live the boys’ lives for them.

“But we can teach them how to live their own lives.”

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