Allentown
52° F
Clear
Clear

Ex-gang member shares story in hopes of helping others

By Ryan Hughes, Reporter, RHughes@wfmz.com
Published On: Dec 24 2013 07:45:28 PM CST
Updated On: Dec 18 2013 05:44:01 AM CST

Authorities in Berks County are sounding the alarm by educating the public about gang activity to help keep kids out of trouble.

READING, Pa. -

Steven Echavarria was sucked into a life he never dreamed of. He spent two years as part of the Bloods gang in Reading. He followed in his brother's footsteps, but now he's standing on the other side.

The 20-year-old is helping teach youth at risk of gang involvement.

"Just to be able to get out alive is a blessing," said Echavarria. "The message to these kids is really look at your life and think do you want to be six feet under, or do you want to be in class, be in college or have a job and have everything you want?"

On Tuesday, nearly 100 professionals underwent a street gang awareness training. They learned the lingo and the culture that is an ongoing problem in Berks County, said officials.

"The purpose of this event is to educate the professionals so they can start seeing the warning signs and know what to look for because we are all a safety net for these young people," said Marcia Goodman-Hinnershitz, director of planning and resource development for the Council on Chemical Abuse.

The Olivet Boys and Girls Club and the Council on Chemical Abuse received a two-year grant from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency to implement gang prevention to kids. According to officials, the early adolescent youth, ages 10-15, are more at risk of being influenced by the gang culture.

"I've seen kids as young as 7 and 8-years-old getting involved in this kind of stuff," said Ben Castiglioni, a juvenile probation officer with the county. "If your brother is in it, your father is in it or your mother is in it, you're more likely going to be involved in that kind of lifestyle."

"Before it wasn't as bad as it is now. I feel like now is the time to step up and change it, if not it's going to continue to get worse and increase," said Echavarria.

Officials said kids need to become more involved in after-school programs, and the biggest tool for a better future is awareness.

Tuesday's program was one effort of many supported by the grant.