Juan Torres still recalls the instruction he received back in 1989 as a fourth-grade student attending Wilmington Park Elementary in Wilmington, Ca. It was a time when the gang influence was heating up all around Los Angeles, especially in the Harbor area, so his school elected to bring in the Gang Alternatives Program (GAP) for a special 12-week session.
“It would have been easy for me to join a gang,” said Torres. “But GAP gave me the fundamental tools to stay away from gang life. It opened my eyes to the reality of what my future would be like if I took that path – a future of crime, going to jail, and being locked up with no visitors.”
Today, Torres sports multiple degrees from Long Beach State, including a M.A. in Public Administration, and he serves as Deputy Director for GAP. He’s worked for the nonprofit for 12 years, holding various roles throughout the organization that has grown from a mere seven employees to almost 90, and he’s been identified as the future leader to take the helm when Executive Director Doug Semark retires in 2016.
“Gangs continue to be a big problem in LA and across the country,” said Torres. “But we are connecting with kids and making a difference, empowering more communities to show an alternative life that is positive and leads to bright futures.”
GAP was created in 1986 and initially focused on two key areas: a strong classroom curriculum directed to fourth- and sixth-grade students advising them of the pitfalls of gang life and how to avoid it, and also a graffiti clean-up service. In 2000, the program expanded, looking at broader gang prevention corpus programs and research. Now, GAP delivers training to leaders around the country with its annual Gangfree Life Academy, transferring research and tools to other communities. The third Academy was held in January 2015.
“It brings people from a lot of different walks of life and different parts of the country, all wanting to create constructive and positive change in their respective communities,” said Semark. “Whenever you empower people to do that, it’s a beautiful thing.”
Semark, who previously led the high-profile American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) before transitioning to GAP, said training is the key to success for any nonprofit.
“It’s far better for local people to provide the impetus for change in their neighborhoods, so we invest in training to sustain,” said Semark. “We bring in a small group of people and spend three days with them, teaching everything we know about gang prevention. We provide our intellectual property and certify individuals to plant gang-free enclaves all around the country.”
The group’s signature youth program, which is shared at the Academy, prides itself on speaking to all students, not just at-risk youth, making them socially accountable to one another. The entire class hears the same stories, sings the same songs and participates in the same discussions.
“Those little conversations between kids change lives,” said Semark. “Most people fear peer pressure, but we create positive peer networks where kids are empowered to offer powerful solutions.”
Torres recalls how some of his own friends turned to gangs, but said GAP provided him with tools to resist, and he was able to challenge some of his peers to get them to also turn away from gang life.
“Our toolkit to resist gangs has gotten better through the years,” said Torres. “I am so glad I am now in a position to give back to the community I grew up in – and our goal for GAP is to continue to expand to surrounding communities and be countrywide in the future.”
Semark says he is confident in the team he’s built, and the model for sharing info and training.
“There are good people in every neighborhood,” said Semark. “If you go into neighborhoods with gang-free programs and find the good people, you can create change.”