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Little Village forum to keep kids out of gangs should expand

Updated: May 29, 2011 12:24AM

Maria Valades brought her three kids to the Youth Forum last Saturday at Joseph Gary Elementary School in hopes that they could learn how to avoid the street violence that plagues their Little Village neighborhood.

“We frequently hear that a 15- or 16 -year-old kid was killed,” Valades said. “We don’t want that for our kids.”

Valades was talking about the recent murders of teenagers Arturo Santana and Omar Mendez, who were killed in Little Village within a 24-hour period less than a mile apart.

On April 13, Santana was stabbed near his home in the 2600 block of South Ridgeway. Mendez was chased down and shot dead in broad daylight in the 4200 block of West 28th Street. Police think the cases are unrelated but that gangs were involved.

On a table, near where the Valades family was standing, there was a pile of Chicago Police Department fliers in Spanish asking the community for help in solving Santana’s murder.

The Fourth Annual Little Village Youth Forum slogan was “prevent violence, promote peace.”

It featured performances and workshops on topics ranging from domestic violence to safe dating. Nearly 1,000 kids and more than 20 community organizations were there.

According to Henry Cervantes-Torres and Ernesto Morales, the founders and organizers of the youth forum, the event has grown every year, attracting kids from all over the city and suburbs.

“Kids now lack the skills to resolve conflicts and avoid violence,” Cervantes said. “There is a need to provide more resources to explore issues of violence in our community.”

Cervantes-Torres thinks a minority of kids in the Little Village neighborhood belongs to gangs. He pointed out many people and organizations that are reaching out to kids to keep them out of gangs.

The fact remains that most murders in Chicago are drug and gang-related.

Gang violence will be one of the toughest challenges Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel will face, particularly because federal and local police agencies point to the increasing involvement of gangs in the drug trade.

The solution is not only to assign more police to the most violent areas in the city. There also has to be more emphasis on a comprehensive approach that includes police, neighborhood organizations, schools, parents, business and programs such as the Little Village Youth Forum.

It was inspiring to see hundreds of Latino, black and white kids participating in workshops and listening to speakers trying to figure out how to prevent violence in their communities. I would like to have seen more parents, but I understand most teenagers don’t want to be seen with their mom or dad in tow.

It would be great if the Little Village Youth Forum could expand its reach to more kids with activities throughout the year. I would suggest that the new Chicago Public Schools authorities take a look at this initiative and support it.

Teachers and principals should welcome the idea of holding the Little Village Youth Forum at their schools. After all, this is about student involvement in an issue that affects their lives and an opportunity to make a difference in their community.

The principal of Gary Elementary School, Alberto Juarez, was present at the event and supports the idea of expanding the Little Village Youth Forum.

“This is a positive way to empower our children to become future leaders,” Juarez said.

It was encouraging to see all these kids positively engaged in tackling a problem that has no easy answer and affects their lives in such a direct way.

We should all expect that Maria Valades’ three kids — and many others like them — will go on safely to college without fear of ending up on a police flier.

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