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Mentoring Is Crucial to Keeping Kids Away From Gangs

By John W. Smith
Thursday, December 9, 2004; Page GZ04

There is trouble on the streets and highways of Montgomery County. It comes in the form of crime-prone gangs trying to recruit new, young members into gang life. Such gang recruitment inordinately feeds on the social and emotional needs of children in this county.

As indicated in the Joint County Gang Prevention Task Force report issued in September by officials in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, the two counties are in trouble because antisocial criminal gangs are aggressively seeking to increase their numbers. Since this is a potent crisis, a main concern of the Task Force on Mentoring of Montgomery County Inc. (TFM) is that we protect our young people from these gangs.

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The gangs are very clever in saying that they provide "family" and "support" for the needs of young people. They don't; but vulnerable young people can be swept into the orbit of gang life before they know that it is happening because gangs are ingenious in this kind of effort. Unfortunately, these vulnerable, at-risk children and youths are oftentimes attracted to gangs, the report said, for a variety of reasons -- "desire for recognition, status, safety, security, or a sense of belonging."

The task force report provides a road map for addressing this crisis, which includes a crucial component: mentoring as a way of keeping our kids safe, out of harm's way and out of the gang's way.

As an active provider of such mentoring to our young people, the Task Force on Mentoring has been working consistently in the social-service trenches for 14 years. It's hands-on work, and for 365 days a year it brings mentoring services to all who ask and need such help. These services are available to all county residents regardless of age, gender, race, color, religion or cultural background.

TFM also provides technical services to organizations, communities and institutions that request assistance in designing, developing and implementing mentor programs. It hosts a major annual breakfast focusing on key issues involving mentoring. On Oct. 7, TFM sponsored its 13th annual breakfast, which focused on the precipitous rise of antisocial gangs in Montgomery County.

As a community-based umbrella organization, TFM's methods are designed to help troubled children live the good life with the help and know-how of caring, well-trained, dedicated volunteer mentors. But TFM is short of money, short of needed volunteer mentors and short of the kind of commitment this county and its leaders should be providing such an effort.

With all the difficulties of maintaining a viable presence in the county, TFM has been repeatedly recognized and commended as a valuable resource and asset to the county's children. Every year, TFM helps a significant number of youngsters turn their lives around to become positive, contributing members of their communities.

It will continue to do so because the need is great and because the TFM is up to the task.

As gangs increasingly become a problem in Montgomery County and across the region, some community groups are stepping in to help. The Task Force on Mentoring of Montgomery County is working with vulnerable young people involved in its programs. John W. Smith of Rockville, a longtime community activist who is a founder of the mentoring program, writes about the group's ambitions and challenges. The task force oversees mentoring programs in several schools and has started one for young offenders at the county jail. Smith is a policy analyst for County Council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg).

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