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Bike Club Lets Youths Steer Clear of Gangs

By attending anti-drug, anti-violence sessions, San Bernardino students get free parts to spruce up their low-rider cycles.


Vanessa Martinez never met her father, but she has heard stories about him since she was a little girl.

He was in a gang, her family tells her. He was beaten to death before she was born, his body found slumped in an abandoned car, his head on the steering wheel. An old woman discovered him when she heard the car horn's blare.

That image of her father has haunted Vanessa all her life. Confused and angry as a child, she thought the one way she could be close to her father would be by joining the gang life and dying as he had.

"I had a lot of hate," she said. "I had stupid thoughts in my head."

For the 13-year-old, who was living in a rough San Bernardino neighborhood, those thoughts almost became a reality. But then Vanessa watched her two older sisters get pulled into gangs. And she saw her mother go to jail for transporting drugs.

This was no way to live, Vanessa decided. And she didn't want to die.

Her sisters and mother have since joined her in keeping to the straight and narrow, though it hasn't been easy.

Good thing that Vanessa, who has since moved to western San Bernardino, has a local low-rider bike club to keep her busy.

Seated atop her blue bike named Precious, her brown hair tied back in two ponytails, Vanessa said, "You're over [at the club] so much, you don't even have time to gang bang."

The club is a back room rented out of the Home of Neighborly Service, a community center on Mount Vernon Avenue. Counselors from the Westside Prevention Project, a pilot program run by the social services agency Casa de San Bernardino, use the facility to offer local youths voluntary anti-drug and anti-violence sessions.

The biggest incentive for youths to participate? Those who attend the sessions get free bike parts.

Souped up with velvet seats, extra wheels, gleaming handle bars and twisted chrome forks, the low-rider bikes give youths the chance to make something of their own while acknowledging the culture of the streets.

"When you build youth programs, you need to build them in the cultural context of the community," said Sandy Bonilla, project coordinator for Casa de San Bernardino. "You need to also look at the subcultures. One of the subcultures is bikes."

The low-rider bikes, two-wheel equivalents of the well-known cars, are popular among youths from western San Bernardino, said Louie Rojas, a counselor at the Westside Prevention Project.

Many come from low-income, single-parent homes. And some, such as Vanessa, have already seen gang violence through family members and friends.

Some of these youths wouldn't attend counseling, Rojas said, unless the bike parts were part of the deal.

"We know what brings them in," he said.

The counseling sessions run Mondays through Wednesdays, and are designed to address the problems neighborhood youths confront every day--the drug culture and violence that comes with it, teen pregnancy, HIV and AIDS.

"We have to speak their language ... and adjust to the issues of the time," said Hugo Castellanos, a social worker who attends the sessions.

In counseling, the 50 or so youths--ages 7 to 17--earn points for good behavior, being responsible and showing respect for themselves and others. Each Thursday at the bike club meeting, they trade in their points for bike parts.

There are no rules on how many points fetch, say, some pedals. Counselors simply look at the bikes and make estimates about what the youths need and how much it will cost them.

The only real requirement for the bike club is to show up for counseling. Those who don't, don't get to participate.

"Most kids are pressured into using drugs or pressured into fighting," Bonilla said. "They have to maintain a very cool image. But our bike club gives kids an excuse not to [get involved]. If you do, you'll get thrown out."

No bike club means no hanging out with friends at Thursday meetings, no showing off at local auto shows, no grandstanding at holiday parades.

"That way, we make them try harder," Rojas said.

Bonilla started the Westside Prevention Project more than a year ago with a $100,000 grant from the San Bernardino County Department of Behavioral Health.

She said the club has brought more and more youngsters to counseling, especially since commercials for the club began running on local cable TV a month ago.

Now, Bonilla fields calls from parents and youths nearly every day.

Marcus Acosta, 14, joined the club a year ago. The eighth-grader with closely cut, dark brown hair admitted he was a handful in the past. He was suspended for talking too much in class. And the police once caught him tagging in the neighborhood.

But once he got involved in the bike club, Marcus found that making, maintaining and showboating his bike provided enough of a distraction to keep him out of trouble.

"You get to build bikes and meet people," he said.

Those simple gains can mean everything to a young person, said Stacia Olguin, 13.

Sitting on her black bike, Stacia said, "Kids see there's better things to do than getting involved in gangs and getting into trouble on the street."

Just look at how far Vanessa came, Stacia said, looking over at her cousin. "She used to have an anger problem. But she knew if she kept that up, she couldn't go to parades. Now she controls all that."

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