Mario Zavala thinks he would have avoided joining a gang even if the Salvation Army's anti-gang program didn't exist. But you never know, he said.
"When we were freshmen, we would hang out with the gangs and dress like them," said Zavala, a 16-year-old junior at Gilbert Continuation High School. "We didn't get very good grades. People would drink. They would want us to drink. I know three or four guys who got lost in the gangs. I had a cousin who got run over and killed by a rival gang. I'm lucky I didn't get into it."
Zavala ascribes much of that fortune to the Salvation Army's program. It offers sports, jobs, recreation and Bible studies to 200 gang members, hangers-on and those who live in gang areas throughout Anaheim in an attempt to lessen or prevent their gang involvement.
The program recently won $50,000 from the Disneyland Community Service Awards as the most deserving charity in Orange County.
David Swenson, the outreach worker who leads the program, said it is successful for many reasons--God and a good relationship with the city among them--but also because it trusts the participants and lets them run the program when possible.
"That's different from a lot of programs," he said. "We empower the kids. We let them know it is their program."
On one recent afternoon, Swenson split time between his office at the Anaheim Family YMCA--which the Salvation Army recently bought and will convert into a youth center--and in the gang-plagued areas near City Hall, Ponderosa Park and Disneyland.
His first order of business was to give summer job applications to some hard-core gang members who "are vets of the gang battles and they want to settle down," he said. "They just need to get over that hump."
Last summer, to provide even more jobs, Swenson organized an automobile detailing business that employed gang members. He is uncertain whether he'll run the business this year--"It was a lot of work"--but he said it was a success.
"My promise to the kids was that if they would stop selling crack and drugs, I would show them how to make money legally," he said. "We had to teach them how to act around customers. How to be responsible. But it worked. Not one of those kids has gone back to selling drugs."
Next, Swenson drove his van around town to pick up his basketball team members. Athletics play a big part in his program, with Swenson organizing frequent handball and softball tournaments that bring rival gang members together in competition rather than combat.
"If they have played with each other they are less likely to kill each other,' Swenson said.
The basketball team is Swenson's pride. It's composed of "good kids," such as Zavala, who aren't in gangs and attend his Bible study, which team members say is more fun than some teens might think.
But even the good kids can't avoid the grim realities of barrio life.
To reward their diligence, Swenson took six players roller-skating at a local rink. Even though they were with Swenson and not dressed like gang members, two of the Latino boys were questioned in the parking lot by a suspicious security guard.
"We have to put up with that stuff a lot," Swenson said. "If I take 20 boys to a ballgame, the security guards will stand right over us. These are good kids, but if society treats them like trash they might start acting like it."