Friday, July 20 , 2018, 4:16 pm | Fair 74º

 
 
 
 
SAUL SERRANO

Saul Serrano, South Coast Task Force on Youth Gangs Thrive Together

Helping local youth stay out of trouble is a deeply personal mission for the Santa Barbara group’s coordinator, who knows something about it

Saul Serrano, coordinator of the South Coast Task Force on Youth Gangs, is proud of the organization’s role in reducing youth gang membership and violence — and he appreciates the difficulty of the accomplishment. “In some cases, I see myself,” he says. “In others, I see my family members, my cousins. I know if my family members had these kinds of programs growing up, things would have been different.” Click to view larger
Saul Serrano, coordinator of the South Coast Task Force on Youth Gangs, is proud of the organization’s role in reducing youth gang membership and violence — and he appreciates the difficulty of the accomplishment. “In some cases, I see myself,” he says. “In others, I see my family members, my cousins. I know if my family members had these kinds of programs growing up, things would have been different.” (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

When Saul Serrano was 13 years old, he was “jumped” by members of a gang while walking to the bus stop to get to school.

“I blacked out,” he recalled in an interview with Noozhawk. “I woke up and said, ‘What the heck happened?’”

Serrano grew up on the streets of Pacoima, a tough northern San Fernando Valley community where fists and feet were the common weapons of the street. He never succumbed to the temptation or pressure to join a gang, but used those influences to arm himself as an adult.

Today he’s the coordinator of the South Coast Task Force on Youth Gangs, for which he has worked quietly publicly, but loudly behind the scenes to help reduce youth gang membership and violence. Since 2009, statistics show that the number of juveniles with probation gang terms and conditions has dropped to 170 from 306.

Serrano, 36, took over as head of the task force in 2011, replacing Gus Frias. He previously worked as health educator for Los Compadres Young Men’s Project, a program of the Community Action Commission of Santa Barbara County.

At the gang task force, Serrano is charged with leading efforts to reduce young gang involvement through educational, government and family service programs. The task force will move into a new area in 2016, after having received a $750,000 grant over three years to work on training and employment programs for at-risk youth.

“The numbers have decreased dramatically,” he said.

All of this work fills Serrano’s heart as he looks to help young people and provide them with opportunities. When he looks into their eyes, he sees familiar faces.

 “In some cases, I see myself,” he said. “In others, I see my family members, my cousins. I know if my family members had these kinds of programs growing up, things would have been different. They would have been more positive.”

Serrano was born in Durango, Mexico, in 1978. His family moved to Pacoima when he was 7 years old.

He spoke only Spanish. School was a challenge.

“I remember not fitting in,” Serrano said. “The language was different. The culture was different.”

He frequently got into fights. Serrano recalls a time when a D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) officer spoke at his school and asked the students how many of them claimed a gang affiliation. Hundreds screamed out that they did.

Serrano’s dad, Rube, and his mom, Alejandra, transferred him to a junior high school in Chatsworth to get away from the gangs. But he said it may have made things worse. Back in Pacoima, he explained, the school was 99 percent Hispanic. So even though there was violence, there was cultural familiarity. In Chatsworth, there were significant class differences and a greater population of white students.

“There were affluent kids who had everything,” Serrano said. “I had nothing.”

He said those students got more attention than the Hispanic students. His life changed when he found a mentor, his U.S. history-drama teacher, Bruce Troe. He opened his classroom in the mornings and at lunchtime so Serrano had a place to go to avoid problems with fellow students.

He said he enjoyed acting because of the opportunities it created for him.

“There was a place for me, a role,” Serrano said.

Troe recommended him for Future Leaders of America, and he took part in camp at Rancho Alegre in the Santa Ynez Mountains. He knew no one on Day One, but said by the end of the week he had made 120 friends.

The camp focused on public speaking, Robert’s Rules of Order, communication and overall leadership. He stayed active with the group and eventually visited Washington, D.C., where he got to tour the White House, the Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol.

Serrano saw his grades skyrocket to As from Ds. In high school, he was taking AP classes.

He also discovered his love for music and deejaying. A friend taught him the craft and eventually he played high school dances. He spent his weekends searching record stores for cool vinyl recordings.

His musical tastes vary, from The Cure and The Smiths to Ritchie Valens and Santana, all artists whose songs he spins on the turntable.

In Santa Barbara he DJ’d a dance at the Carrillo Recreation Center, where he said nearly 1,000 people attended. He also opened for Ozomatli at a music festival in Santa Cruz in front of 4,000 people.

After high school, Serrano attended UC Santa Barbara, first majoring in psychology before switching to sociology. There, he discovered his interest in helping people like him.

“I wanted to fix myself and my family and my community,” Serrano said.

He worked as a teaching assistant in Sun Valley, and later for Girls Incorporated of Greater Santa Barbara’s Healthy Start, Healthy Families program. He also worked at UCSB as the Latino liaison to Isla Vista’s Latino community.

These days he spends a lot of time looking at the big picture of youth gangs, and less time directly interacting with teens and young people. He said he misses the communication on the ground, but he enjoys writing grants and finding funding to create prevention programs for South Coast youth.

Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider said Serrano has a strong ability to connect with young people.

“Saul is the quiet, yet effective force behind the Task Force on Youth Gangs,” she said. “His ability to connect the school system, Probation Department, and a variety of agencies dedicated to providing safe alternatives to gang life to those involved in or at risk of joining a gang is a big part of why we are seeing a significant drop in youth gang activity.

“I also appreciate his commitment and work with family members, helping them provide better opportunities for their children.”

Serrano’s next goal is to go to graduate school.

He finds reward in mentoring and leading young people.

“It makes me feel like I am doing something productive,” he said. “It feels like I’m contributing to the community instead of taking.”

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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