A mother of three stood in the Tuolumne Elementary School cafeteria with her arms crossed, her bottom lip almost quivering and her voice filled with desperation. She's afraid.
Her teenage son has been skipping school and hanging out with the neighborhood's bad crowd. She fears he's sinking into the violent underworld of gangs.
She's hoping a program designed to scare students straight will help her child. That's why she waited to speak to Jorge Perez last week after a gang awareness meeting he organized at the school.
And that's exactly what Perez was hoping for. He stays late, sometimes up to two hours after public events, to speak one-on-one with parents and get them involved in their children's lives.
Perez is an outreach coordinator for Modesto City Schools. He provides services to students at risk of joining gangs, dropping out of school, using drugs or getting involved in criminal activity.
He orchestrates gang awareness meetings: one specifically for parents and educators, and the other geared toward students.
"I see myself more as a social worker than a counselor," Perez said after asking the worried mother to call him and schedule a home visit. "I want to see what it's like for them at home."
Then he does his best to find help for the family by directing them to school resources, law enforcement programs or community groups, using his connections to ultimately get students on the path to a high school diploma and a college degree.
"Jorge's biggest asset is that he's student-oriented," said Modesto City Schools Superintendent Arturo Flores. "He's already gotten me to go with him on a couple of home visits this year. We'll do it one student at a time, to get a diploma in their hands."
Perez also works closely with schools' staff, law enforcement and community groups to organize events to provide the latest information about gangs and drugs.
When a child's life is taken by gang violence, Perez said, he visits the child's home. He makes the visit not only to console the family but to offer any help he can and try to quell retaliation by relatives.
His experience is firsthand
It's a cycle of violence Perez knows well. He grew up in Salinas, a city plagued with gang violence. He became a gang member, but it's an aspect of his life he doesn't overemphasize.
"I don't want the kids to think, 'I can join a gang and get out and become successful like Mr. Perez,' " Perez said. "I tell them that I'm an exception. I was lucky."
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But he does share his past with some students, especially the older ones, to show them there's a way out of gangs. Perez tells them he had only one direction in his life at that time: "I was going to go to prison."
His life changed at the start of the 11th grade. His high school English teacher took the time to help him with his studies, pushing him to graduate and attend college.
He left the gang life in Salinas behind and moved to Turlock, where he attended California State University, Stanislaus, earning a bachelor's in liberal arts in 1999.
Perez started his career teaching at Bret Harte Elementary School in Modesto before he was hired to lead the Modesto Outreach and Intervention Team at Modesto City Schools.
He said he is amazed about how far he's come, especially when he remembers those close friends in Salinas who weren't able to escape gangs and drugs.
"Three of them are dead, three of them are in prison and three of them are addicted to drugs," said 34-year-old Perez. "Last month, I received my master's degree in educational counseling from the University of La Verne."
He routinely shares his academic achievements with parents and students. He did so last week at Tuolumne Elementary, where about 100 people attended a gang awareness meeting.
A few weeks ago, a 16-year-old boy with Down syndrome was killed by stray gunfire a few blocks from the school. Parents were worried about the violence that has become common in their unincorporated neighborhood between Modesto and Ceres.
School officials asked Perez to gather gang experts from the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department, the Stanislaus County Probation Department and Modesto and Ceres police.
"We're here to prevent your children from joining a gang, using drugs and dropping out of school," Perez said to the parents in En- glish and Spanish. "Gang prevention doesn't start with me, it doesn't start with law enforcement, and it doesn't start at the schools. Gang prevention starts at home."
The experts listed county gangs, along with the colors, symbols and names they use to mark their turf. They told parents how their children might have haircuts or monikers that are red flags for gang membership.
A day after his parents meeting at Tuolumne Elementary, Perez organized a gang awareness meeting at El Vista Elementary.
The meetings with students incorporate music, dancing, martial arts demonstrations and motivational speaking. The events are designed to grab the students' attention to let the message sink in:
"A true friend will never, ever put your life in danger," Perez told the students. "A true friend will never ask you to join a gang."
More effective than lecturing
El Vista Elementary principal Marilyn Rockey said Perez and his group of volunteers take the right approach in capturing the students' attention.
"These events work better rather than having somebody standing up there giving them a lecture," Rockey said.
Perez is usually joined at the events by Team Endure, volunteers from the Victory Life Center who perform at area schools, smashing cinder blocks and bending iron rods to show students they can overcome anything.
"We need to plant a seed of hope while they're still young," said Eric Domen of Team Endure.
As a youngster, Perez didn't think he would be good at anything except committing crimes. He overcame that with the help of an educator, and now he's trying to do the same for others.
"It doesn't matter where you begin," Perez told the El Vista Elementary students. "It matters where you end up."
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2394.