YOUTH PROGRAM TRANSFORMS VAL VERDE.
VAL VERDE, Calif. - Four years ago, Val Verde was plagued with the highest rate of gang-related crime in the Santa Clarita Valley.
An entrenched gang that recruited generation after generation of thrill-seeking teens was vandalizing homes and businesses, selling drugs, breaking into houses, assaulting people, robbing stores and stealing cars, officials say.
Though gang activity still exists, Val Verde is now one of the safest areas in the valley, with teens playing softball and basketball in the park instead of peddling drugs.
Much of the credit for this rustic community's transformation goes to Deputy Harry Hauge, head of the Santa Clarita sheriff's station's Youth Activity League based at Val Verde Park.
Since Hauge launched the county-sponsored youth program in 1995, officials say, the overall crime rate in Val Verde has decreased by 72 percent.
The reason for the crime rate drop is simple, Hauge said: Older teens are aging out of the gangs, and they aren't being replaced by younger ones.
``These kids are a new generation, and they aren't going to go in that direction,'' he said, pointing to his softball team playing a recent game at Newhall Park. ``I can look around here and see at least three kids who have parents in prison, and many have older brothers and uncles in prison or in gangs. These kids need real structure; they need to make some commitments.''
Because of the youth activity league, about 40 girls and 60 boys from Val Verde make commitments each week - to be on time for athletic practice, to meet with their tutors and to hone their computer skills in the computer lab at the Val Verde Boys & Girls Club.
Hauge also organizes a variety of outings for the kids, taking them to the beach, the Rose Bowl, golf courses and even Disneyland. While most of the members are teen-agers, the league is open to children as young as 8.
``I couldn't believe there were kids who grew up in Southern California and had never been to Disneyland,'' Hauge said. ``That was unbelievable to me.''
Teens in the activity league say the program has helped them steer clear of gangs and develop more respect of others.
``It's better than being at home, and it's helped me stay out of gangs,'' said 18-year-old Eddie Domrique, who joined the league when he was 13. ``It's fun. I don't have anything else to do.''
Hauge's stern but caring style has earned him high marks with the teens in the program, most of whom describe the stocky deputy as ``cool.''
``I don't talk down to them because they've been talked down to enough all their lives, and that carries over into everything they do,'' he said. ``They're people who believe they can't do things, but I don't let them accept that. One thing parents have to start doing is having expectations of excellence for their kids.''
Girls in the league are encouraged to do everything from play football to enter beauty contests, he added.
``Some of our older girls are taking business classes or going to vocational school,'' he said. ``Before, they were relegated to staying home and having babies.''
Teens who join gangs are usually searching for identity, acceptance and, ironically, discipline, said Detective Scott Miller of the Santa Clarita sheriff's station.
``Most of them have no discipline at home and no father figure to lay down the law,'' Miller said. ``So the gang is like their family. If they break the rules, they get punished.''
As the father figure in the youth activity league, Hauge said, he expects the teens to treat each other with respect and to use courtesy words such as ``please'' and ``thank you.''
``I ask them, do you want to be a bully or do you want to be a hero? Do you want people to be afraid of you or do you want to lead people?'' he said. ``I tell them they don't need a gang to empower them, because they're empowering themselves.''
For many teens in the program, the message is sinking in.
``I don't cuss that much anymore, and I treat people better,'' said 15- year-old Ricardo Medrano, one of the league's star athletes.
Medrano added proudly that he is now working as Hauge's assistant.
The ultimate goal of the program is to boost the teens' self-esteem and give them the self-confidence to pursue their dreams, Hauge said.
``Once they realize they can be good at something, it will carry over into everything they do,'' he said.
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|Publication:||Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)|
|Date:||Aug 18, 2000|
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