- Associated Press - Sunday, October 30, 2016

MEDFORD, Ore. (AP) - Troy Wohosky, a youth mentor and founder of the Spartan Boxing Gym, remembers the night a decade ago when he nearly threw away his life.

A gang member at the time, Wohosky and three friends drove to Ashland for a party but were ambushed by two dozen rivals wielding Tasers, bats, bottles and a hammer. When he saw someone pump a shotgun, Wohosky jumped back in the car and sped away - accidentally running over two people, including one of his friends who had been dragged back out of the car.

In the rearview mirror, he could see Taser flashes as rivals continued to beat up his screaming friend. Wohosky wanted to turn back, but another friend in the car insisted they flee back to their home turf in Medford.

“When I was driving, it seemed like a horror movie,” Wohosky recalls. “As I kept driving, the screams got louder. I have nightmares about it still.”

When they reached the Medford exit on I-5, they were met by police and Jackson County Sheriff’s Department cars.

“I thought my life was done and I would be behind bars,” says Wohosky, now 31.

The odds were against him.

When he was 6, Wohosky’s family immigrated to America after a volcano erupted in the Philippines. His mom left the family and his dad worked two jobs. Wohosky fathered a child at age 14 and helped found a local chapter of the Ready And Willing gang.

But at the same time, Wohosky was a skilled and passionate boxer training for the U.S. Olympic Team Trials - with coaches and mentors who believed in him.

Though he was interrogated by police, Wohosky ultimately wasn’t charged for injuring the two people while escaping from the ambush.

The violence of that night, the dawning realization he was setting a bad example for his young son and encouragement from adult mentors eventually persuaded him to leave gang life behind.

“They believed in me at a time I didn’t believe in myself,” Wohosky says.

When he launched Spartan Boxing Gym in Medford and began mentoring others, his so-called friends from the gang weren’t interested in helping out.

Wohosky is now part of a community-wide coalition of partners working to steer youth away from gangs and provide positive activities through sports, art, spirituality, bicycle-building and other outlets, reported the Mail Tribune (https://bit.ly/2eNx5uK).

The partners meet regularly as part of the Jackson County Gang Prevention Task Force, which includes law enforcement and corrections personnel, educators, nonprofit organizations and others interested in prevention, intervention and suppression of gang activity. They agree police can’t fight gangs alone.

“Law enforcement is part of the answer, but it’s never the whole answer. It’s part of a bigger solution,” says Jackson County Deputy District Attorney Marco Boccato, who prosecutes many gang-related cases. “It’s important that those kids be involved in the community.”

The attraction of gangs

Wohosky says he was attracted to gang life, in part, because his older brother and sister were involved with gangs. Forced to grow up fast, he felt older than his years and wanted to hang out with older people.

In some ways, launching a local chapter of the Ready And Willing gang was like starting a business or joining the military. Members met regularly to devise ways to make money. They had specific policies and leaders with titles like “general” and “sergeant-at-arms.”

Kids who wanted to join faced a long initiation process. They had to be “jumped in” - beaten up by other members - and commit a felony. After clearing those hurdles, they still had to be voted in, Wohosky says.

A charismatic, natural-born leader, Wohosky says the younger members of the gang looked up to him. He was always dealing with crisis situations, fielding phone calls at all hours and harboring fellow gang members who would hide in his house in the middle of the night.

Rico Gutierrez, a former gang member and Familia Unida volunteer who teaches kids to build bicycles, says kids with too much time on their hands are susceptible to gangs.

“They’re not involved in other activities like after-school programs,” he says. “That gives them extra time to get involved in something they shouldn’t be involved in. A lot of times, the parents are working and kids come home to an empty house. They’re bored and want to go do something. That’s how gang members get kids involved.”

He says parents often can’t afford the cost of having their kids involved in sports and other activities. However, he urged parents to research scholarship opportunities and other ways to cover the costs of activities.

In struggling families, Wohosky says parents may not have the time to drive kids to activities. He often ferries kids around in his car so they can get to and from Spartan Boxing Gym, which has classes and a mentoring program.

Some kids come from single-parent families, see drug and alcohol abuse at home or have relatives involved in gangs, says Matt Sweeney, a chaplain for the Jackson County Juvenile Detention Center who is active with Rogue Valley Youth for Christ and the Jackson County Gang Prevention Task Force.

“They get camaraderie and a feeling of family from gangs - although it’s a false feeling of family,” Sweeney says. “They get adventure and excitement because gangs are involved in illegal activity. An adrenaline rush comes with breaking the rules, especially with teen and preteen boys. They see the bigger kids as role models.”

As a chaplain for juveniles, Sweeney says he tries to address their spiritual needs while also teaching them about responsibility, respect and honor. He tries to instill the message that gang involvement is a dead-end street.

Sweeney recalls one young man who is now happily married, a father, involved with his church and working toward a career in law enforcement.

“They started out with bad behavior as juveniles. Now as young adults, their lives are turned around. They are quietly living productive lives in the community,” he says.

Other organizations reaching out to kids with activities and mentoring include Kids Unlimited, Rogue Valley Family YMCA, LIFE Art Studio & Cultural Center and Upper Rogue United Futbol Club for soccer players.

Gutierrez says the whole community has to help prevent gangs.

“I myself was involved in the lifestyle. The only way to fight gangs is the community and the police working together to beat this,” he says. “The community has to be involved. Police can’t do it alone.”

‘You can make a difference’

Medford police Lt. Mike Budreau, who heads the Medford Area Drug & Gang Enforcement team, says kids gravitate toward gangs to gain a feeling of acceptance and belonging.

“Parents need to talk to their kids about gangs,” he says.

Sometimes, teens are engaged in gang activity right under their parents’ noses. Parents need to watch out for gang symbols written on notebooks, backpacks and in kids’ rooms. If a teen and his friends are all wearing the same color - especially blue or red - that is a warning sign, Budreau says.

“Often signs of kids’ gang involvement is very evident. We find gang colors and graffiti in their room. Parents had no idea what they were looking at,” he says.

In the Latino community, parents may have limited English skills while their children are fluent. That can create a barrier for parents trying to stay aware of their kids’ activities, Budreau says.

The Medford Police Department has a bilingual cultural liaison on staff who can speak with and educate parents. The police department doesn’t investigate the immigration status of parents, he says.

“It’s more important that we have communication with the family,” he says.

Although the public believes local gangs recruit Latino youth, police warn that gang membership crosses racial, ethnic and cultural lines.

The 10 defendants convicted of involvement in 2015 and 2016 drive-by shootings in Medford included Latino, white and black teens and men.

As part of its gang-prevention efforts, MPD has four police officers and two community service officers assigned to schools. There they can watch for signs of gang activity and build rapport with students, Budreau says.

Phil Ortega, who is in charge of attendance and discipline for the Eagle Point School District, says educators and police try to make schools safe, neutral areas, even if some students and their siblings are involved in gangs.

The more time kids spend in school, the more likely they are to stay out of trouble, graduate and pursue post-high school careers and education, he says.

Ortega urged business owners who employ students to ask to see their report cards and attendance records on a regular basis. If a teen who isn’t going to school applies for a job but lacks a high school diploma or GED, the employer should encourage the teen to go back to school, Ortega says.

Even with perfect attendance, students in Oregon spend more days out of school than in school during the calendar year, he notes.

“Let’s consume some of their unstructured time with meaningful opportunities,” says Ortega, who is also involved with LIFE Art and the Upper Rogue United Futbol Club.

Ortega has been pushing kids to stay in school in the Rogue Valley for so long that Wohosky of Spartan Boxing Gym remembers his intervention.

“Phil Ortega was my mentor in school. I’d try to skip school and he’d catch me and make me do push-ups,” Wohosky says. “But he would also talk to me and listen to me and really believe in me. If something was wrong, he would know.”

Ortega says people in the community often don’t realize how difficult kids’ lives can be. He especially remembers one teen whose father died from gang violence.

“It took him a year longer to graduate, but he did graduate from high school. It was very emotional and touching to see him overcome adversity,” Ortega says. “They have huge hurdles no one knows about.”

Like Ortega, Wohosky takes time to listen to youth, often meeting with them in his office at the gym.

“With some of the kids, it makes me tear up listening to their lives. Sometimes they break down crying and they need that,” Wohosky says.

Members of organizations serving youth urge the community to support the groups, either through donations or by volunteering.

Ortega says while there are many successful people in the Latino community, there remains a shortage of bilingual Latino men stepping forward to serve as mentors.

Recalling how his mentors and coaches helped steer him away from gangs, Wohosky says he feels a responsibility to help the next generation.

“You can make a difference,” he says. “The most rewarding thing for me is to see these kids succeed and be leaders. You have to be more involved. We might not save the whole world, but you can change one life, and maybe he’ll change someone else’s life.”

___

Information from: Mail Tribune, https://www.mailtribune.com/

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