A library in the heart of Pueblo's east side is taking a stand against gangs by working with both young kids and gang members themselves.
Last year the Patrick Lucero library was in the news for having to hire a Pueblo police officer just to keep gang members from trying to recruit children reading and doing homework after school. Things have changed a lot in the past few months, though, with a hands-on approach that is truly changing lives.
You can find Mark Salazar, a former gang member-turned-certified addiction counselor, at the Lucero library every afternoon, giving local kids his own account of the gang lifestyle and its negative impacts. He learned the hard way after recovering from five bullet wounds and spending more than eight years in prison.
"We're reaching to them at a very young age trying to prevent those that are exposed to gangs from getting involved in gangs," says Salazar.
He leads a role-playing exercise with the youngsters, asking them to break into groups and portray kids who want to do drugs and kids who say "no." In another exercise a group acts as gang members trying to recruit other kids. One of the most vocal in these skits is Esai Torres, 14, and it was not always an act for him.
Torres joined a local gang when he was just 12, following in the footsteps of his own father. "I reminded them of my dad, and my dad was pretty big," he says. "He was an OG, so once I heard that, maybe I could be just like him."
Torres's father died of a heroin overdose when the boy was just four years old. Last year Salazar intervened in Torres's life. Now the mentor takes Torres to a gym a few blocks from his east side home to train to be an MMA fighter. "It keeps me out of the streets," says the teen. "Like I'll go there from 6 to 9. After that I go home and just relax and I'm tired."
Salazar is not the only new person the library brought on board. Tobias Martinez recently joined the staff as a Community Resource Specialist, a social worker-type role. Martinez came to Pueblo to make a difference after growing up in Denver among family and friends who were in gangs. His life changed during the Summer of Violence in 1993 after a cousin in prison wrote him an eye-opening letter. He recalls, "There's a lot of things he warned me about that was not good, and he was like 'you need to get your education because education is going to take you forward."
The first in his family to graduate from college, now Martinez hopes to impart his insight on the kids at the library. "Seeing people get shot in the community that you know, and then you go to their funeral. They're six feet under," he says. "Seeing those things really makes you open your eyes and makes you look and say 'I need to change my life.'"
"The vast majority of the kids that are here are good kids," adds Salazar, "so I think a lot of them are a lot smarter than we may think."
The library's staff members say they have seen significantly fewer gang members flaunting their colors around the youngsters these days. Attacking the east side gang problem is not an overnight project, however. The library still employs a Pueblo police officer, and is in the process of developing an educational program about non-violence.