Herndon Police Chief Toussaint E. Summers Jr. stood in front of about 30 students at the town's Hutchison Elementary School on Monday morning and asked for a show of hands. "Does anyone know someone who's involved in a gang?"
About a half-dozen hands inched up. "Not too many," he said. "That's good." Summers, who also heads the Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force, had feared that at least half the kids in the room would raise their hands.
Gang-related crime has crept into every corner of this once rural town. A 17-year-old Herndon youth was shot to death last year by a gang member on a bicycle. Teenagers have been involved in countless gang crimes as the epidemic has spread across Northern Virginia.
So Summers was pleased to be present for a kick-off event for a new Boys & Girls Club extension that began operating Tuesday at Hutchison Elementary. The club will initially provide an after-school outlet for 30 children in grades four to six from 3 to 6:15 p.m. every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. The club hopes to have a five-day schedule soon.
Hutchison's is the second Boys & Girls Club in Fairfax; the other is in the Culmore area near Baileys Crossroads. With $1 million in funding plus $2 million in advertising and other support from cable provider Cox Communications, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington plans to open four more clubs in Fairfax County by the end of next year.
The clubs focus first on school, helping kids keep pace with their classes and homework.
They also provide opportunities to play sports and music, learn about nutrition and art, and understand how to resist pressure to join gangs or take drugs, said Wonhee Kang, who is overseeing the Culmore and Hutchison programs.
Herndon Mayor Michael L. O'Reilly said that 95 percent of the children who participated in the Culmore club had improved their grades over the previous year.
"The town believes this will decrease the likelihood of kids joining gangs and provide a place for children to go after school," O'Reilly said.
Hutchison Principal Sheila Kearney said her school already had a number of outreach programs in which community members try to steer students in a safe direction. She said Fairfax County police officers regularly sit down for lunch with small groups of children to build trust and show them they can talk with police.
"Rarely are our children directly involved in gangs," Kearney said, "but it's in their environment." She said school leaders had specifically selected 30 students who are not necessarily poor but are "children we know could use support."
Almost half of Hutchison's students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, a statistic often used to gauge the wealth of an area. About a third of the school's children are Hispanic, Kearney said, and students from 60 countries have attended Hutchison in recent years.
Gang investigators have often said that prevention activities should target middle- or even elementary-school levels because gang recruiting can begin with preteens and younger children.
"I think this is a great age group to start with because they're still very impressionable, and still have very open minds," Summers said.
Officials at Monday's ceremony largely credited Gary McCollum, vice president and region manager at Cox, with being the driving force behind the expansion of the clubs in Northern Virginia.
"I grew up in a housing project in Richmond, Virginia," McCollum told the children at the ceremony. "I didn't have a lot of the nice things that kids have. But there was a Boys & Girls Club in walking distance. It's a positive place. Choose a club, don't choose a gang."
Later, McCollum said: "My club was the first place I ever got a job. I know that this place works. They have the tools and the connections to take these kids another way."
Although Fairfax is known as a wealthy county, about 20 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, McCollum said. "The only option a lot of these kids have is gangs," he said.
A full Boys & Girls Club takes more than $150,000 a year to operate, said Tim Sheahan, executive vice president of the Greater Washington chapter. The extension at Hutchison will cost about $65,000. Sheahan said it is fully funded for at least eight years by Cox, along with a $25,000 federal grant check delivered Monday by U.S. Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), who helped launch the police gang task force.
Sheahan said the Hutchison program will use the school's gym, computer lab and classrooms. The club will have three staff members and several volunteers, he said. Field trips to circuses and other events will be provided.
Sheahan said clubs don't usually start so small and that he hopes the Hutchison extension eventually will serve more students. Students who participate will be charged a registration fee of $20.
"We're in the prevention business," Sheahan said. "With gang issues so huge in Northern Virginia, we're going to use our outreach to keep kids on the positive side of things."