Monday, March 10, 2008

Second violence-free day held in Bohnett Park


For the second week in a row, hundreds of community members headed outdoors for a party in the park as part of a recently brokered, temporary peace agreement between local gangs.
This time the festivities took place at Bohnett Park, where kids played musical chairs and joined in a massive Easter egg hunt. Organizers said the afternoon served simply as a time for families to hang out and relax.

“In reality, that is what life is about,” said Juan Carlos Ramirez, a youth mentor with the Community Action Commission. “In reality, life is about families.”
Through a collaboration of community groups, including the Community Action Commission, Mi Gente and Tri-County Youth Program, Ramirez and others helped local gang leaders reach an agreement to allow for three neighborhood gatherings on consecutive weekends without the fear of violence.
Ramirez said the signed agreement is more than just a vow to let gang members relax and enjoy an afternoon in the sun.
“It’s just a way of acknowledgment and respect [between the gangs],” he said.
Since the group of youth activists, banded together under the banner of the Collaborative Communities Foundation, helped facilitate the agreement, it has been praised as groundbreaking by some and minimized as unimportant by others, said Babatunde Folayemi, a youth leader with the foundation.
He said while some may deride the temporary truce as inconsequential, small steps are already being taken in the right direction. At yesterday’s gathering at Bohnett Park, those in attendance were not only members of the Westside neighborhood, he said, but also from Goleta and Santa Barbara’s Eastside — something that could never happen any other day.
“In another month, people will start seeing changes and they will start to understand what we’re doing,” Folayemi said.
In comparison to the prior Sunday’s gathering at Ortega Park, which seemed more low-key and had fewer attendees, yesterday’s party drew hundreds of participants, including many families and children.
Folayemi attributed the larger crowds to a combination of factors, such as the tight-knit nature of the neighborhood near Bohnett Park. The Ortega Park gathering also lacked music after a DJ failed to show, he said, and some in the community may have been waiting to see how things went at the first event.
A disc jockey made it to Bohnett Park yesterday and thumping jams could be heard a block away on speakers set up along the basketball court. Organizers took advantage of the public address system, holding raffles for haircuts, free T-shirts and gift certificates to neighborhood stores.
Children also gathered for a few rounds of musical chairs and a dance competition — the winners walking away with donated prizes clutched in their arms.
“What’s neat about this event is it’s the community coming together,” said Martin Conoley, the county’s deputy chief probation officer for juvenile services, on hand to witness the festivities and chat with community members.
He said after last Sunday’s event in Ortega Park, the juvenile probation department saw only two bookings in the following three days. While he stopped short of linking the two causally, Conoley said the department typically averages about three bookings a day.
As the afternoon wore on, heavily tattooed men helped volunteers place colorful eggs around the park in preparation for the egg hunt. Nearby, a couple of teenagers tossed a football back and forth.
Ramirez said getting gang members to acknowledge that such a lifestyle is possible is a positive step. Part of the path forward is “showing them that this is what they could be having all the time,” he said.
A former inmate, Ramirez said he started working on youth issues after realizing he needed to make a change in his life.
“We’ve got to break the cycle. We’ve got to teach them a little better,” he said. “Otherwise they’ll end up doing the same things we did. Hospital stays are not cheap.”
Next Sunday, the group will move on to the Goleta Community Center to hold the final neighborhood gathering. Then, in April, Folayemi said plans are in the works to have gangs work together on a car restoration.
Giving youth hope, through family support and career development, is the ultimate goal, he said. He rhetorically asked what could drive young teens to violence, such as stabbing a peer.
“It’s when you box them in and don’t give them any opportunities,” he answered, adding, “You don’t have any right to complain about violence in the community if you don’t allow them to get out of it.”

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