Silbestre Gaeta had built quite a relationship with the correctional system.
By his own count, the 24-year-old had been "in and out every year" of his life since the age of 11, the byproduct of running the streets and experimenting with drugs.
"That was my main problem," he said, "the drugs."
Gaeta said he also had gang affiliations up until last year, too. He was also caught with a weapon in January 2009 and placed back on probation.
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Since then, he vows that he's changed his ways, citing his four kids as inspiration: ages 9, 8, 6 and 3.
Now he's taking classes at the Merced County Probation Department day reporting center in parenting and life skills, and he attends Merced College twice a week where he majors in business.
"This is the first semester I've been going and kept going," he said of school.
Gaeta, who also got married this month, said the probation department has programs that have helped him stay clean and out of trouble.
The probation department is a member of Merced's Community Violence Intervention and Prevention Task Force, commonly known as ComVIP.
"We realize that violence in the community is a tough issue, and we are not going to solve it with one discipline," said Lt. Andre Matthews of the Merced Police Department. He also chairs the task force.
It takes a village
ComVIP is a partnership of government, education, police and faith-based groups, which work together to offer various programs to prevent and reduce gang violence in the community. Included are the Merced County Probation Department, Boys & Girls Club of Merced County, the police department, the City Council, Gateway Community Church and others.
The stakes could hardly be higher.
Of the 76 homicides reported in Merced from 2000 to 2009, 35 were gang-related. Forty-four of those 76 homicides -- or about 60 percent -- remain unsolved. In a county with an estimated population of 255,250, law enforcement officials believe about 5,700 of those people are documented gang members. That's roughly 2 percent.
Matthews said the partnership was formed in March 2007 after a rash of shootings tied to gang violence. Concerned citizens came forward, and people tried to figure out ways to deal with the bloodshed.
"Out of that, we decided we needed a smaller working group that was representative of a lot of elements in the community: government, faith-based communities and wide spectrum of people and make decisions around gang violence," Chief Probation Officer Brian Cooley said.
Chris Bobbitt, assistant chief probation officer, said it's amazing the group is still working together after more than three years because it came together only because of that surge in violence.
"It's not a group that just met, resolved one incident and moved on. It has really taken on a life of its own and evolved," she said.
The task force provides a structure for the various agencies to work with one another.
"If we contact them (vulnerable youngsters) in elementary school and in middle school and the high school, then we have a kind of consistent message they are getting all throughout their educational career," Matthews said. "We have a number of programs that we are working on and collaborate and assist with each other with various programs."
For example, the task force works with gang violence intervention officers in each school and instructs people in ways they can prevent someone from becoming a part of gangs and gang violence, Matthews said. They also educate parents about violence in video games and their impact on children, and youngsters' perception of violence.
The Boys & Girls Club of Merced County offers a gang prevention program that works with kids who are termed "at risk" or "elevated risk," according to Tony Slaton, executive director.
Last year, he said they helped about 200 kids in the program.
"It's a lifelong process -- you want to get a young person while they're young and work with them through it," Slaton added. "We engage the young person; we touch their lives, the lives of their families, (work with them on) issues related to school, art, development, who they are.
"And then when it is really working, link them to other opportunities."
Looking back at the past few years, Cooley said there were issues dealing with schools that the probation department was able to solve.
He said the department and the district attorney went to the school board because kids were getting out of school at 2:15 p.m., posing this question to officials: "Why don't they go longer, because that is when a lot of the crime is happening?"
They successfully shifted the time to a later release. "They did that, the police department did some studies and crime generally went down," Cooley said.
What the probation department brings to the ComVIP table are educational programs for adults and juveniles, according to Cooley.
Adults attend a day reporting center on M Street and take cognitive classes "to try to restructure their thinking pattern," Cooley said. Meanwhile, juveniles attend school in the morning and are taken to the day reporting center and attend cognitive classes until 6 p.m.
The task force is trying to improve communication between the school district and law enforcement authorities. Matthews said the group would like to purchase software called "Citizens Observer" to improve those communications through the use of texts and e-mails.
And there is an added bonus to the software: it allows communication with Neighborhood Watch groups.
Help from schools
Lee Andersen, county superintendent of schools, said the program will include numerous officials, such as school officers and vice principals.
"The main need for school people is to be able to communicate quickly when a fight or incident occurs that may spawn similar incidents in retaliation on other schools or particular schools," he explained.
He said the main program that relates to the task force goal of community safety is Valley Community School on Wardrobe Avenue. It's an alternative education program that includes a classroom program and independent study. "It's geared towards students who for one reason or another have not adjusted well to a comprehensive campus and program," he said.
The Merced County Office of Education, which is part of the task force, operates the Valley Community campuses in Merced, Los Banos and Atwater -- which are all participants in ComVip, according to Andersen.
Matthews said other projects the group is working on include a pilot project in South Merced called the Walking School Bus, a program to try to get parents and residents who live in the area involved in making the route to school safe. Another is a youth engagement project and forums at the Boys & Girls Club, which will probably begin in late October.
It may take a village to raise a child, but it takes committed groups like those in the task force to save many children.
Even big kids, like Gaeta.
Reporter Ameera Butt can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or firstname.lastname@example.org.