At-risk youth camp facilities prevention of gang integration

Gang-violence intervention camp for youth

Brent Toombs
28 September 2019

It’s a hot August morning in a small peaceful village in western Belize.  A group of teenaged boys are gathered under the shade of few large trees.  Their attention is focused on the police officer addressing them.  Another police officer and a solider from the Belize Defense Force watch nearby, providing security.  

These youth are from Belize City’s notorious “south-side”, the gang-infested sector of Belize’s most densely populated urban enclave. Neighbourhoods where the street you grow up on can determine your friends and adversaries.  Home to one-third of all homicides in the country and where, on average, there is nearly one killing per week according to the Belize Crime Observatory.

Many of these boys, who range in age from 12 to 17 years of age, have already run into trouble with authority.  Some are known, or claim, to be affiliated with various gangs.  All are considered to be at risk.  Cloistered together nearly 100 miles from the streets they call home, this is an attempt at intervention. 

The police officer looks each of the young men in their eyes before asking the group, “when is the last time you got a hug from your father?” 

For 17-year old Jerrie Jones Jr., it has been at least nine years.  “My father died from gun violence when I was eight.  They say it was a mistake, but maybe it was just his time”, Jerrie recalls with a grim acceptance that comes from growing up in a community where violent death can seem indiscriminate.  Especially for young black males.

Jerrie Jones Jr., 17 years
UNICEF Belize/2017/Brent Toombs
“I don’t know how it feels to have a father”

Along with his two brothers and one sister, Jerrie grew up tough in the Yabra area of Belize City. A gang known as South Side Gangsters (SSG), who view young men such as him as potential soldiers in the never-ending war with various rivals, control his neighbourhood.  Jerrie says he has managed to avoid being recruited into the gang, but he still has had his share of trouble.  By age 15 he was expelled from school for fighting and found himself drifting aimlessly. He began associating with the wrong type of people.

Police corporal Jeremy McCulloch can easily be described as a gentle soul.  His soft-spoken manner seems at odds with what you would expect from a cop tasked with dealing with gangs and at-risk youth.  Jeremy is the program coordinator for the Conscience Youth Development Programme (CYDP), a government agency with the mandate to engage at-risk youth before they get involved in violent criminal activity.  Jeremy believes if he can intervene with young men like Jerrie Jones now, he won’t have to arrest them later.

Jerrie and thirty-nine other youth are attending CYDP Expedition, the programme’s annual summer camp.  For one week they live, learn, and play together.  Activities range from motivational talks and life lessons to sports and recreation.  Bringing together young men from rival neighbourhoods is potentially volatile; hence the need for security and early intervention as soon as camp begins. “We know who is going to have trouble with whom”, says Jeremy. “The first thing we did at camp was gather those people together and say we want to know if you can work along with us to help secure the others, to work as one family.  And it’s working, so far.” 

CYDP Program Coordinator, Jeremy McCulloch
UNICEF Belize/2017/Brent Toombs
CYDP Program Coordinator, Jeremy McCulloch

However, Expedition 2017 almost did not happen.  Government cutbacks earlier this year left CYDP without the financial resources they needed to hold the camp.  Fortunately, thanks to the assistance of UNICEF Belize, camp was not cancelled.  

The young men at Expedition were selected from nearly 300 CYDP participants that Jeremy and his team work with on a year-round basis. This particular group of campers were deliberately chosen because they show promise but are still at risk of heading in the wrong direction. “These kids have the potential to become gang leaders”, Jeremy explains. “This is an opportunity to help them make a U-turn before that happens.”

When CYDP began in 1995 it employed much more of a military boot-camp approach to working with young people.  That philosophy radically changed in 2014 when program officers at CYDP received training in Teaching Personal Responsibility through Sports (TPRS) from Dr. Paul Wright of Northern Illinois University. “People think that because we are police officers that everything is going to be paramilitary when enforcing discipline”, explains Jeremy.  “But once you push too hard they will push back and you will lose them.  I don’t want them to see us as the enemy.  Otherwise how will we get them to trust us?” 

It was sports that first attracted Jerrie to CYDP. He does not hesitate to credit Jeremy and the other officers from the program for helping him to stay on the right path. “I don’t know how it feels to have a father, but the way they treat us is like they are our dad.  With CYDP we get access to anything we need like sports or computers.  We have their cell numbers and anytime we are in trouble or need someone to talk with they are there.”

Jerrie Jones enjoying a game of dominoes with new friends
©UNICEF Belize/2017/Brent Toombs
Jerrie Jones enjoying a game of dominoes with new friends

“When I first got to know Jerrie I asked why are you hanging out with a particular set of people and he told me he had no other choice”, recalls Jeremy.  “He is not rooted as deep (in negative activity) as the rest but he has been involved.  He is trying to take himself away from that environment as much as possible, even if that means being at our office 7 days per week.”

For Jeremy, constant engagement is the key to success.  These boys may be at camp for one week, but it’s the efforts he and his colleagues make during the other fifty-one weeks of the year that really matter. “It takes a lot of work when we get back to Belize City”, he explains, “We may have good influence over them here, but what about the (gang) leaders when these boys go back to Belize City?”

Lunchtime at CYDP Expedition.
UNICEF Belize/2017/Brent Toombs
Lunchtime at CYDP Expedition.

Surprisingly, Jeremy says one of the major sources of support for CYDP’s efforts comes from some of those very gang leaders themselves. “If you get to know those guys you will see that many of them were dragged into that life because they were not given any other opportunity.  You don’t want to go in there and have them see us as the enemy because then our job will be useless.  They will fight back and for some reason they have more resources than we do”, Jeremy says, punctuating his last remark with a slight laugh. “So we tell them give us your young people and we will get them out of this.”

So far it appears Jerrie is determined to be one of those young people who gets out.  Not only has he remained free from the clutches of gangs, he has also returned to school. He attends classes in the evening with his tuition fees paid for by CYDP.  He plans to go on to university after he graduates from high school with the goal of getting a job that will allow him to help support his mother and siblings. 

Jeremy has learned from experience to be pragmatic when measuring the achievements of CYDP.  He knows they won’t save every young man in the program and his voice breaks with emotion when he speaks about the number of funerals he has had to attend over the years. 

One of the activities during camp was tubing on the Macal River.
UNICEF/2017/Brent Toombs
One of the activities during camp was tubing on the Macal River.

But it’s what is happening here, at this camp, that encourages Jeremy.  Forty boys, one week, no fights - that is how he defines success this week.  And Jerrie agrees.

“I didn’t know any of these young men before.  I only knew the crew I came with. But now I know every single one of them.  We can actually sit down and have a conversation.  If we meet in the city and something happens, we will be together. Why?”  Jerrie pauses only briefly before answering his own question, “Because we share this love, we already had fun together.  We had this experience that taught us we are not negative people.”

Jeremy echoes that sentiment but is much more matter of fact when expressing his expectations for the after-effects of camp.  “Come Monday we can be hopeful that we will have forty young men from six different neighbourhoods who don’t want to kill each other.”  

With 2017 on track to be another record year for homicides in Belize, the residents of a beleaguered city would welcome that as well.