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Gloves over gangs

Troy Wohosky understands how gangs recruit new members. He used to be a top member.

It’s also why, years later, he’s one of the people at the forefront of efforts to keep young people in Southern Oregon out of them.

“If I would have stayed in that realm ... I think I would have made it far, but also ended up in prison or dead,” said the founder and owner of Spartan Boxing. The gym in west Medford is meant to support youth at risk of being drawn into gangs — and anyone else who needs a place to belong.

Monday morning, Wohosky spoke on a panel with other local leaders working together to encircle youth with positive interventions to keep them out of gangs.

Fellow members of the county’s Gang Prevention Task Force included Joe Ferguson, deputy director of Jackson County Juvenile Services, Phil Ortega from LIFE Art and the Eagle Point School District, Mark Patterson, a school resource officer with the Medford Police Department, and Matt Sweeney, ministry coordinator and connect director for Youth 71:Five Ministries (corrected). They led a breakout session at the Oregon Nonprofit Leadership Conference, which ran Monday and Tuesday at the Ashland Hills Hotel and Suites.

Patterson, who is based at North Medford High School, gave a law enforcement perspective, which looks a lot more like mentoring, relationship-building and education in his position, he said.

“We’re not looking to arrest people and take them to jail,” Patterson said. “That’s not what our job is as (a school resource officer).”

If he gets wind of a gang affiliation or a related situation involving drugs, for example, Patterson follows up first with conversation, he said. He might help them get connected to counseling services, drug treatment or other resources.

All the presenters emphasized that calling out the good in youth is as important as trying to protect them from bad behaviors and influences.

“We gotta love kids for who they are,” Ortega said. “We gotta catch them when they’re doing good, stop focusing on the negative and honor them with who they are.”

He said programs such as LIFE Art, which encourages kids’ creativity, Familia Unida’s bike program and Wohosky’s youth outreach at Spartan Boxing can provide positive outlets and enable them to see what they could accomplish with their futures.

Wohosky said a gang provided many of the same incentives and experiences that eventually motivated him to start a business: structure, loyalty and purpose.

Now he tries to provide those in his gym.

The Gang Prevention Task Force meets every other month and tries to provide a tight safety net around at-risk youth. Cost and transportation are often barriers to access for after-school programs, so the county’s Keep Encouraging Youth (KEY) program — composed of LIFE Art and Spartan Boxing — aim to eliminate those.

A Youth and Gang Grant from the state’s Youth Development Division, which Jackson County Juvenile Services applies for every two years, keeps those programs free for students.

The past two years, however, the county has been awarded only half of the grant money it requested, Ferguson said. That means LIFE Art and Spartan Boxing have been able to serve only half of the kids with grant money they had hoped to (both programs still serve other youth beyond those helped with the grant funding).

Ferguson said the state doesn’t offer a reason for funding the request partially, but pointed to metrics such as the 100% graduation rate among LIFE Art participants as a measure of the programs’ efficacy.

Youth crime overall has fallen in recent years, he said, which is backed up by data from the juvenile division’s most recent 12-year report.

Sweeney, whose organization focuses heavily on relationships and mentoring in a variety of outlets, said that even one relationship with a trustworthy adult can play a pivotal role in youth development.

“It is that presence of a competent, caring adult that is the best defense against the drugs,” he said in response to a question at the panel about student drug use.

Ortega echoed the point that keeping youth out of drugs and gangs depends on more than the organizations represented in the panel that morning.

He described a time when school officials drove from White City to downtown Medford. Along the way, they counted how many public messages they passed that pertained to substance use, such as dispensary signs or billboards, and how many were about graduation or being a good community member.

They passed 16 marijuana-related displays as opposed to one display related to the latter topics, he said.

“If I’m a visitor coming into Jackson County, I’m picking up on those things. And guess who else is? Our kids,” Ortega said. “So it takes more than a school resource officer, it takes more than an art collective effort. What is the tone? What is our culture? And what are we going to do about it?”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.

A previous version of this article stated that Matt Sweeney was the executive director of Youth 71:Five Ministries. Bud Amundsen is the nonprofit's executive director.

Troy Wohosky, owner and head coach of Spartan Boxing Club, trains Leopoldo Ibarra, of White City, on Tuesday. Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune