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Suburban counselor helps kids escape gangs

Updated: January 7, 2013 2:16AM

Street gangs usually are synonymous with city life, miles away from the suburbs.

Yet police officers, teachers and counselors in many suburbs can tell you gangs long ago infiltrated the neighborhoods they serve.

Carlos Rodriguez and Ivan Ibarra have seen the gangs up close.

Rodriguez is a gang and substance abuse counselor for northwest suburban Omni Youth Services. He helped rescue Ibarra, a 21-year-old Prospect Heights resident, from gang life.

“Gangs aren’t out here killing like they are in Chicago,” Ibarra says. “But people look at the suburbs like good neighborhoods. No drugs. No gangs. It’s interesting, because I see it every day.”

As a child, Ibarra looked up to older gang members who ran his neighborhood even though his parents were good to him. Ibarra says they worked long hours to keep the family afloat financially.

“They couldn’t give me attention,” he says, “but I don’t blame them. They were working.”

Still, Ibarra didn’t seek out gangs. He was jumped and beaten as a sixth-grader while playing basketball in a park. He fought back, and that impressed gang members, who soon recruited him.

“To me it felt like a second family,” Ibarra says. “You have someone there if something happens. But [gang members] are also manipulators. We would hate people telling us what to do, but we took orders from guys.”

His contributions to the gang were as a fighter, Ibarra says. He has scarred knuckles, as well as scars on his head, marks that will never leave him, from beatings he inflicted and endured.

Gang life continued for Ibarra despite two stints at a juvenile detention center followed by probation and court-mandated counseling at Omni. That’s where the patience of Rodriguez comes in.

Rodriguez refused to give up on Ibarra. Then, too, Rodriguez isn’t a 9-to-5 counselor. He’s there for kids and teens practically around the clock.

Rodriguez, 51, notes that above all, “kids are craving adults to have a relationship with them.”

In addition to counseling, Rodriguez called Ibarra often to check in and set up informal meetings over lunch.

“I found it weird,” Ibarra says. “This guy was calling me and sitting down with me. We’d have interesting conversations about life, family and culture.”

Rodriguez looks for hidden talents in those he counsels, whether it’s poetry, playing an instrument or painting. Ibarra took up acoustic guitar. He also writes lyrics.

In powerful group sessions, Rodriguez brings together rival gang members. He ignores their differences and asks about their common ground.

Ibarra realized he was fighting boys who were of Mexican descent like him, who also had hardworking parents struggling to get by.

Ibarra didn’t want to fight anymore, but it’s hard to break from gang life. For him it took about four years. All the while, he had Rodriguez, who helped persuade Wheeling High School administrators to let him re-enroll after expulsions, at his side.

Gang meetings no longer interested Ibarra, and he skipped them. That led to retaliation. Guys he once called brothers jumped him. Former gang rivals wanted to get back at him. He is still missing a tooth from a bloody beating, and he is self-conscious about his speech being affected.

That hasn’t stopped Ibarra, who is attending community college, from delivering talks at middle schools, joining his mentor Rodriguez in trying to keep kids away from gang life.

He doesn’t tell them what to do, he says. He tells them they have choices.

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