For court-involved teens like Darian, words alone are rarely enough to convince them that gangs are a bad choice. They need help replacing the support that the gang provided, and they need to believe they can achieve new goals. | Read more about gangs

Signs, Symbols & Solutions  |  When the power is off at home, the refrigerator is bare and the parents aren’t parenting, gangs can have a powerful appeal to kids, even as young as elementary schoolers.

An estimated 314 gangs are active in North Carolina, and by the time many teens come through the juvenile justice system to Methodist Home for Children, they’ve become gang-involved.

Darian is one of them. He’s 16 now, but he was 11 and running the streets of his hometown when he was recruited into a gang. He was 14 when he was caught breaking into a car, looking for money. He was 15 when he came to live in a multipurpose home at MHC.

Many of the teens who come to Methodist Home for Children as repeat juvenile offenders are gang-involved. Signs, Symbols & Solutions is a new one-year project that will drill down into the reasons why. What is drawing children as young as elementary schoolers to join a gang? What can MHC staff do to build rapport and help these kids imagine a better life for themselves—one in which they are an asset to their communities rather than a liability? See sidebar »

Gang involvement was, in Darian’s mind, an act of survival, says Yvette Hawkins, who worked with him as multipurpose home program manager. He’d never known life without poverty—but more importantly, he’d never know life in a stable home. His mother works unpredictable hours in a minimum wage job, and she wasn’t home much. Her boyfriend was violent and intimidating. It wasn’t unusual for the power and water to be shut off for months. His mother counted on the money Darian brought in through gang activities, stealing and drug dealing, to support his two younger siblings. School wasn’t a priority, and he’d fallen far behind academically by the time he started middle school.

The gang filled the holes in Darian’s life where family had failed him. It was a source of income, protection, identity and structure that was missing at home.

“He has been given a raw deal with his support system,” Hawkins says.

Signs, Symbols and Solutions aims to replace that missing support and transition teens like Darian out of gangs. Danya Perry, vice president of support services at Communities in Schools, will lead the work, with the goal of getting teens to “own” goals for themselves and giving them the support they need to succeed.

It doesn’t work to simply tell kids to quit the gang, Perry says. To change the trajectory of someone’s life, to replace the support and structure of a gang, you have to guide him to setting goals for himself. That might mean getting a job, going back to school or joining the military, if possible. But it starts by building a rapport and getting a voice in that kid’s life so that he hears you and opens up to seeing a different future for himself:

“How can we focus on the positives, how can we get youth to look at the big picture and have goals, dreams, ambitions?” Perry asks. “How do we make them so focused on that so that the gang becomes secondary?”

For Darian, employment is a priority. He’s worried about his younger siblings at home—but going home is no longer an option for him. He needs a new start and skills to live independently. His next step is the Craven Transitional Living Home, where he can get the help he needs to finish his education, find a job and set long-range goals.

jengaPerry likes to visualize a well-adjusted, stable teenager as a Jenga game with all of its wooden pieces in place.

Teens like Darian, missing important supporting pieces (security, family), are vulnerable to gangs, which will fill the holes with a less stable material, like Styrofoam. The teen is propped up for the time being.

When someone with good intentions tries to help by removing the unstable Styrofoam pieces, they need to fill the hole with something solid. Simply taking away the Styrofoam does not work.

“We all want to feel supported,” Perry says. “Our goal is to find the right support pieces to make a teen strong and stable.”