Ramiro Cervantes is back out on the streets.
But these days, he's there to help, not hurt. Cervantes, a self-described former gang member who at 14 packed .22-caliber and 9-millimeter pistols on Santa Ana streets, is trying to help build a sense of community among the city's lowest-income residents.
Now 18, Cervantes is one of 12 youth health outreach workers at Latino Health Access who are using unique techniques to attack problems in Santa Ana's poorest neighborhoods.
Cervantes reclaimed a handball court from local gangs and promoted games between fathers and sons at the Spectrum Apartments on 4th and French streets. Now he's organizing skateboarders, who with his help designed a city skateboard park.
"What's driving me is passion," said Cervantes, who spent three years in Juvenile Hall after he was convicted of being the lookout in a drive-by shooting in 1997. "I don't want to see [other teenagers] go through what I went through."
Latino Health Access, an 8-year-old organization based in Santa Ana, has always used outreach workers--many of whom have experienced addictions, violence or poverty themselves--to address social problems, said founder America Bracho. The workers are known by their Spanish name, promotores.
But the addition of youth workers is even more important because they are able to quickly gain the trust of peers who might not otherwise participate in community activities, Bracho said.
"We did not invent the concept of community workers," said Bracho, a Venezuelan-trained physician who worked with promotores in her native land. "It has been shown that the community can help itself when [members] are trained, particularly in health."
While the youths work with their peers, 28 adults serve as promotores for older clients. Latino Health Access staffers say they personally know each of the promotores and their families, have faith in their abilities and keep tabs on what they are doing. They say they would be among the first to know if one of the promotores slipped back into their old habits.
In 1999, the organization received a $1.4-million, three-year grant from the California Wellness Foundation to pay Cervantes, then a volunteer, and the other youths. Cervantes' weekly salary is $250. Latino Health Access intends to seek other grant funding to continue the program.
The results of their work have become apparent this year, with each of the youths leading unusual projects in Santa Ana apartment complexes.
Jazmin Sanchez, 20, set up a teen fitness group that meets several times a week for one hour of exercise, one hour of teen talk and writing in journals.
"I'm their age so they don't feel like an outsider is coming and telling them what to do. I ask questions of what they want. They feel it's their own thing, and when something is yours, you take care of it," Sanchez said.
Pilar Vivieros, 21, recruited a doctoral student to the gritty Minnie Street apartments to teach English classes as a way to help residents who have two jobs and little time to travel to school. Vivieros is also a student in the classes.
Bracho said the promotores receive initial training, plus follow-up training sessions each week. They also spend six to eight hours a week in mental health informational sessions so they can better help residents, who often confide in them.
The promotor system has encouraged adults and youths who have made bad decisions to become outreach workers, Bracho said. It's a way for them to make amends. Because they have been in trouble, gotten their lives back together and now are trying to help others, their messages are taken seriously, Bracho said.
Cervantes is a prime example.
"Ramiro has this charisma. He went through a lot of things. He doesn't want to go back to jail. He doesn't want anyone to go to jail," Bracho said.
Leo Noriega, program assistant, said the workers are taught to be sources of support, "like friends," to their clients. Youth promotores make up action plans with the teens they help, and adults make up similar plans for the adults they assist.
For the next three weeks, the promotores will work on anti-alcohol campaigns in low-income apartment complexes. The campaigns include songs, slogans, a serape where residents can pin messages expressing their feelings, and a tunnel where they learn about the effects of alcohol abuse.
Cervantes has organized dozens of teens for the campaign, something he couldn't have imagined just a few years ago. By age 12, he said, he was stealing car radios. By 13, he was hanging out with a gang.
His peers at the juvenile detention center helped him redirect his life. He was determined to make changes. He now hopes to finish high school and attend college.
Noriega worked with Cervantes for a week when Cervantes first started volunteering at Latino Health Access.
"It never crossed my mind that he would stay with us and do all this. He was a different person. Then he opened up. He became more motivated than we ever imagined," Noriega said.