Looking around the room filled with nearly 100 people, Kellie Henderson said one thing was very clear: "We live in a community that cares a lot about its kids."
School officials, social workers and criminal justice professionals were among the crowd Friday at Clark College's Gaiser Hall to dissect a complicated issue: how the community can do a better job keeping youth safe and healthy.
Henderson is one of the organizers of the Keeping Our Kids Safe Conference. The annual two-day conference, put on by the Safe Communities Task Force, offered breakout sessions for professionals Friday on gang identifiers, sex trafficking and youth suicide, among other topics. A half-day conference for parents is scheduled for today.
To kick off the conference, former gang member Fabian Debora told his story.
Debora, who lives in the Los Angeles area, told the crowd his path to joining a gang started during childhood. He had a father who was violent toward his mother and involved in the illegal drug trade. When Debora was young, he said, he would hide under the coffee table and draw as a way to "create my own world to escape my own reality."
"I was drawing in class; no one asked what was wrong," he said. One day, a teacher tore up his artwork in front of all of his classmates, and Debora took his anger out by throwing his desk. He was expelled and never graduated high school.
"It demoralized me," he said. "Resentment was building. I hated the world."
Debora joined a gang and spent seven years between the age of 13 and 30 in prison.
A near-death experience led Debora to change his life. He now works at Homeboy Industries, an organization that helps kids through the problems he had endured.
Debora said he sees that he was drawn to gangs because he couldn't find what most kids are searching for — acknowledgement, respect and acceptance.
"It's not my mother's problem, it's not my father's problem, it's a community-based problem," he said. "There's nothing in place if you fall … no one there to catch you on the next step."
His words were met by nods of agreement from the audience.
"We need every child in Clark County to know that they are embraced and loved and cared for," said Major W. Harris Jr., mentor program coordinator for the Department of Social and Health Services. "The community needs to be more proactive rather than reactive … and mentoring is a piece of that puzzle."
The most important component to the conference is the networking that takes place, said Mick Hoffman, executive director of operations for Vancouver Public Schools.
The schools, Hoffman said, have access to children various organizations may be trying to reach.
"The school is part of the solution, because they're part of the fabric of the community," he said.
Hoffman said he was excited to see so many people at the conference who were willing to take the time to learn about the issues facing young people.
"Twelve and 16 years old is far too young to give up on," he said. "If we don't do something for our kids, we're going to have a whole segment of the community that is disconnected."