At-risk youths, parents hungry to connect

That’s demonstrated in Q-and-A between adults, at-risk teens

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian arts & features reporter


photoParents can’t just demand respect, they’ve got to earn it. That’s what Shane, 16, said at a conference on youth safety, gang violence and better communication between parents and children.

(/The Columbian)

On the Web

The Safe Communities Task Force, a coalition of community stakeholders from citizens to businesses to government officials, has posted numerous resources for parents, children and concerned neighbors online.

Topics covered in English, Spanish, Russian and Vietnamese include

guides to gang identifiers and behaviors, how to talk to kids about tough issues, and

how to reach local help:

What can a father do when a despairing child receives bullying text messages? Should parents snoop into their kids’ Facebook accounts? How can parents talk and listen in a way that doesn’t drive children away? Is it cool for parents to act, you know, cool?

A Saturday conference on parenting at-risk children, called “What Kids Know and Parents Wish They Did” and sponsored by the Safe Communities Task Force, featured as its centerpiece a panel of six Clark County teenagers who’ve been mixed up in the juvenile justice system (and didn’t want last names used in this story).

They answered questions from an audience of about 70 people, from concerned parents to professionals who work for nonprofit agencies, school districts and governments. The conference was at the Boys & Girls Club O.K. Clubhouse and Teen Turf Club at the Jim Parsley Community Center.

The hourlong Q-and-A session demonstrated that parents and children are hungry to connect with one another — and yet seem to miss one another too easily. A father in the audience professed bafflement at the loss of the little buddy his son used to be and wondered how to stay close; a 14-year-old on the panel confessed that what she most wanted from her parents was “to give me a hug every day and tell me they love me.”

And she burst into tears and buried her face in her hands.

“Sometimes these kids just need to hear that they are loved,” said Kathy Huss, a conference organizer and a longstanding leader of the Ogden Neighborhood Association. “Instead of hearing they’re stupid and they’re garbage.”

So, what does a mother tell a son who’s wishing a little too hard to be cool? And maybe falling in with the wrong too-cool crowd?

“Tell him his main focus is stay in school, get an education, don’t slack in school, make better friends,” said Marlon, 19.

Is there a best situation for these frank conversations? For example, are “car talks” easiest because everyone’s facing forward and you avoid the embarrassment of eye contact?

Definitely, said 16-year-old Shane — chores, games, driving, anything. “You’ve got to be doing something. You’ve got to be doing your thing,” he said.

And what about that boy who’s getting intimidating texts — to the point where his father is getting worried about mental health and even suicide?

“I’d ask questions at school,” said Jennifer.

“I’d do everything in my power to show him positives,” said Shane. “There’s a lot more positives than negatives. Life is a beautiful thing, you know? But he’s not seeing it.”

This third annual Safe Communities Task Force conference included workshops on sexual exploitation, talking to teens, drugs and alcohol, and gang identifiers.

It was held just days after what Vancouver police described as a gang shootout in central Vancouver — a few blocks southwest of Huss’ neighborhood.

Two men were involved in a gang confrontation in the 3700 block of East 18th Street on Tuesday evening that involved a display of guns and some shooting. A third man was taken to Southwest Washington Medical Center and later released, but the hospital briefly went into lockdown because of a possible security risk. Two suspects, ages 16 and 20, were arrested.

Taking children back

Pulling kids back out of gangs is the passion of the conference keynote speaker, Sister Ines Telles of Soledad Enrichment Action Inc., a Los Angeles alternative school program begun in 1972 by mothers who lost children to gang violence. It has grown to a 19-school charter program that’s supported by the city and state and serves 4,000 high school students per year.

The students in SEA know it’s likely their last educational chance, Telles said.

To hear Telles describe it, SEA sounds like a combination of strict discipline and customized curriculum building. When you’re dealing with an 18-year-old gang member who can do math at a fifth-grade level but only read at a second-grade level, she said, you need careful diagnostic testing, small classes and individualized instruction and counseling from a specially trained staff.

You also need an absolute ban on drugs and all gang identifiers, which is why school uniforms are mandatory (white shirt, black slacks) and the staff is always on the lookout for even the tiniest infractions.

“We watch every belt buckle, every shoestring,” Telles said.

Not every kid makes it, she acknowledged, and some fight the program all the way through. “But at the very end, they are filled with gratitude,” she said.

While the SEA philosophy embraces the idea that change comes from within and nobody can force anybody else to make different decisions, that doesn’t let parents off the hook. SEA offers a rigorous 20-week parenting class, Telles said, that focuses on teaching parents to help their kids “clear away the junk” that keeps them from realizing their own power.

“Parents don’t know they’re part of the problem,” she said.

Children who join gangs are looking for something meaningful to do and to be, she said; to win them back we must substitute something just as gratifying and meaningful.

“I’m tired of gang life,” a student told her once, “but I don’t know where to go.”

The answer came from another student, a girl, who called Telles to report feeling higher than ever before — not on drugs but on service to her fellow human beings. It was legal, it didn’t cost a thing and it wouldn’t ever result in a hangover, the gleeful kid was realizing.

“She was telling me exactly what to do,” Telles said. Telles and SEA are now branching out from school to start a youth peace movement that’s attacking a wide variety of societal ills through service, she said. They’re feeding the homeless. They’re holding peace marches. They’re learning Native American crafts and an appreciation for the bewildering diversity in a city like Los Angeles — instead of feeling threatened by people who aren’t in their gang or their ethnic group.

And the applause they get from parents and teachers, sheriffs and probation officers is fantastic, Telles said.

“They feel so good about themselves. They’ve never been praised like that before.”

Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525 or