YAKIMA - The Southeast Yakima Community Center has been working to curtail gang problems in Yakima and the county with federal financial support.
Children participating in the programs there were playing basketball in the gymnasium as U.S. Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) visited last Friday.
She spoke with the center's director, Ester Huey, Yakima County Sheriff Ken Irwin, Commissioner Kevin Bouchey and Randy Town of ESD 105 about the center's programs being financed with federal dollars.
Huey told Murray many of the youth served at the center have gang ties. The youngsters, she said, are most often referred to the center by parents concerned about their activities.
The Southeast Yakima Community Center, she said, connects youngsters who either have gang ties or are at risk of becoming involved in gang activity with a number of programs offered there. Some youngsters need mentors, tutoring or counseling services. Others take advantage of the after-school sports activities at the facility.
The youngsters are given a survey to determine their needs and each youngster is given a customized plan that addresses their specific needs, said Huey.
One program, she said, is of special note. That is a program operated by Junior Burson, a reformed gang member and outreach coordinator with the center. "He helps youngsters get on the right track," said Huey.
Burson works with youth who've indicated they have a drug or alcohol problem. He has developed a program to assist them with rehabilitation and to develop job skills.
Burson has also worked with organizations like the Yakima County Sheriff's Office to help youngsters find a job.
Huey said many of the youngsters at the community center have anger management issues. Those, she said, stem from problems at home. Of particular concern are those with parents who have been incarcerated.
"Most who have a parent who is incarcerated will become incarcerated," she stated to Murray.
Murray turned to Burson and asked what he looks for when he watches the youngsters at the center.
Those youth in the room continued to play basketball during the conversation and Burson answered with a gesture toward those youngsters. "I just start a conversation...they tend to open up to me when I share my own story."
Huey said the center is focused on breaking unhealthy patterns, especially those concerning criminal behavior.
She said the center has set high academic standards for the youngsters. They must hold down a minimum grade point average of 3.0 to participate in the activities that are "fun."
If they do not meet that standard, youngsters continue with tutoring programs to meet the goal.
The center, said Huey, also advocates for parents. She said staff at the center will speak with the schools to garner support for the students. Some youngsters have reason to fear for their safety while in school because other gang members might harass or intimidate them. For that reason, the Southeast Community Center staff works out an agreement with the school administrators, keeping the youngster from attending a class with known gang members or associates.
Huey said the efforts of the center have been made possible because of Murray's efforts to help secure funding. Last year the center received $500,000 and this year another $750,000 in federal dollars was awarded to the center for its efforts at gang intervention and suppression.
The center, Huey said, is able to reach beyond Yakima and work with other Yakima County communities.
"Because we may not know people in Sunnyside, we work with Chief (Ed) Radder to reach out to those youngsters," said Huey.
Murray said she was impressed with the programs offered to youngsters through the Southeast Community Center.
She noted the trust of the youngsters while the adults talked amongst themselves. "They just keep playing even with Sheriff Irwin in the room."
Working with the youngsters, said Huey, is Eric Lee. He is a Grandview resident and is a program assistant, whom Huey said works well with the youngsters at the center.
She credited all the staff for making the programs at the center successful.
A press conference soon followed the discussion.
Huey said in the conference the federal funding has enabled the Yakima center to develop a chain of partnerships throughout the county.
One program recently started is the Yakima County Gang Commission.
Murray said that is one of the efforts she is proud to help fund. She said she wants to support partnerships between the juvenile court and ESD 105, as well as programs like those offered at the community center.
"I feel there couldn't be a better investment," she said during the press conference.
"Keeping kids out of the court system saves much money in the future," Murray continued, stating she wishes to continue working on the gang prevention and abatement act to combat gang violence.
Town, being given the opportunity to speak about ESD 105's efforts to help with the efforts of other communities and programs, said his organization is developing a transition school for youth faced with long-term suspensions or expulsion.
"We want to pull them back in and provide both education and counseling support," he stated.
Town said the hope of ESD 105 is the transition school will admit students at the end of September.
After the conference, he told the Daily Sun News the program will be much like Sunnyside's Choices program. He said the ESD 105 program will be geared to enhance the already established program.
Murray was questioned about the safe streets bill, which would support law enforcement agencies, providing funding to keep officers on the streets. She said the bill is one of many appropriations bills currently being introduced in the U.S. Senate. She said it is a priority for her.
Of concern said Murray is the safety of all citizens in Washington state.
"I know working together in this approach is of great benefit," she said.