WILMINGTON -- As our population grows so does crime. The growth of gangs in our area is of special concern. But gangs like the bloods and the crips aren't native to our area -- they've been imported from the big cities on both coasts. Gangs are relatively new here. Police first noticed their presence in 1995. Now, 13 years later, there are clear signs of gang activity across the area. Gang symbols and people flashing hand signs can be seen all over town. John -- not his real name -- moved to Wilmington about four years ago. He says he became a high-ranking gang member in New York after stabbing a man nine times. For almost a decade, his life revolved around the gang until four years ago when he got out. And more ominously John says he has already begun to see the evolution of gangs in this community and fears they could become as violent and as dangerous as the gangs in New York. John said, "Me coming from the city, and seeing how the gangs started, where they started, how they elevated, Wilmington is headed to that stage." He says the life lead by gang members is often one that leads to death, and that parents and teachers need to teach children at an early age about the dangers of gang activity. "I don't think it can be stopped, but I think it can be slowed down tremendously and it can start in the homes." John now uses his experience as an example for others by speaking out about the destructiveness of gangs at public forums. He hopes what he has to say will help others who might be taking a turn for the worse. "I love my life now. Being gang-free, being with my family, you know, I love being gang free," John said. Theresa Huffman works at the county's Juvenile Day Treatment Center with children and young people who might be recruited by gangs. She says over the years she has seen the gangs in the area grow and says it will only get worse in the future. "If we as a people don't get a grip on it right now, they will really take over the entire land and country," Huffman said. Huffman says the rising number of school dropouts in the area is what is leading to gang growth. "That child doesn't go to school. That child is hanging out on the street corners. The gang members are hanging out on the street corners. They're offering different incentives saying, hey if you hang with us, I can get you some nice shoes. Your mom's not going to do that for you. That's allowing our kids to grow more and more rapidly," Huffman said. Huffman has been working with law enforcement agents and former gang members to create public meetings at area churches to educate parents, teachers and children about the consequences and dangers of getting involved in gang activity. WPD Officer Roderick Hamilton said, "This is a deadend thing that they are joining. The biggest thing they need to know is to mind their parents and stay away from the gangs because it's just going to lead to a jail sentence or a loss of life." Michelle and Jon-Paul Guarino head the county's gang task force and are taking a different approach to cut down on gang activity. Guarino said, "Our primary objective isn't to lock a gang member up. If you take a gang member or young person and put them in prison, they are just going to become a better gang member." The task force has adopted programs which get possible gang members or gang members involved in activities which keep them busy and help the community, such as getting gang members to teach mentally disabled children to ride a horse or get involved in art classes. "I think the activity would be decreased because kids would be exposed to healthy alternatives," Guarino said. "Prevention has to start early, it has to be consistent, it has to be implicated in the schools and after school programs and churches. We really need to come together as a community to make the outlook look as good as it does with the programs in place." Huffman says the programs implemented by the gang task force are effective less than 50 percent of the time. The success rate goes on a case by case basis and is also based on the amount of mentoring each child receives.
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