Experts say keeping kids engaged may prevent gang involvement

Although the overall crime rate is down in Wilmington, gang violence is still a very real problem involving very young people.
Published: Apr. 26, 2022 at 4:46 PM EDT
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Although the overall crime rate is down in Wilmington, gang violence is still a very real problem involving very young people.

This week, police connected a double homicide in Northwest to gang activity, arresting suspects on opposite ends of the state to bring justice to the victims. It’s something police see too often.

“These are children killing children,” said Interim Northwest Police Chief Scott Perez.

When it comes to keeping your kids on the right track, it’s the teenagers who are more at risk. At some point, they stop feeling like they belong. Other stressors include food insecurity and concerns about their family making enough money to survive. That along with peer pressure can make the teenage years a tough place to be.

“The students who felt most confident in their future were those that felt they had increased support systems,” said Genna Wirth, executive director of Voyage, a nonprofit that offers programs and services to get kids on a path towards success. “However, we saw that as students aged from 14 to 19, the older they got, the less confident they felt and the less supported they felt.”

Wirth says parental involvement is crucial when you’re looking for warning signs. Ask questions about where they are going, who they’ll be with and when they plan to be home. If your child can’t answer those questions, that might be a red flag. It’s also a good idea to make sure your kids are spending their time wisely.

“Things parents can do is encourage their kids to get involved with things, sign them up for programs,” said Wirth. “Being involved in anything is really important. It doesn’t matter what it is, just as long as it’s positive.”

Wirth pointed out that parental involvement isn’t the only thing that can keep a kid on the right track. Many households have a single parent that works long hours and can’t be home to keep an eye on their at-risk teens. That’s where the community has to come together to support one another. After all, it takes a village.

“Nonprofit organizations and community organizations are such a great filler for that gap that these children might be feeling because we can be that sense of support, that sense of belonging, that sense of family for them,” said Wirth.

While many organizations have programs for younger kids, older kids need positive opportunities, too. Voyage realized its lack of programs that appeal to teenagers last year. That inspired its program Youth Over Local Obstacles (YOLO) and a partnership with Pivot.

Offering programs isn’t enough because kids often join gangs to meet needs like food insecurity and financial concerns. Even if they choose not to join a gang and instead find other means of making money, it may be a dead end.

“A lot of our kids are thinking about tomorrow. They’re not thinking about their lives five to ten years from now,” said Wirth. “That’s the biggest piece of advice I can give: start thinking about your goals and think about what immediate goals can help you reach those.”

Voyage wants to be the answer — and it even pays kids to show up. Showing up to a YOLO meeting the first time that week earns a teenager $15. After that, it’s an additional $5 each day they come. The hope is that their involvement will put them on track for a brighter future with a college degree or career path. That way, teenagers can look forward to life with greater prospects and a higher annual income.

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