SALISBURY, Md. - The National Youth Gang Survey reports that over the past decade, annual estimates of the number of gangs have averaged around 25,000 nationally. While this is clearly a national issue, it is also a problem in Wicomico County.
"Gangs recruit at a very young age, for the kids that don't have love, they don't have families," says Matt Maciarello, State's Attorney in Wicomico County. "They're looking for belonging and they find it in gangs."
However, one local program is looking to put an end to that. Salisbury's "Stop the Violence" program held a "Back to School Bash" on Wednesday night, to promote their after school program. The non-profit youth drop-in center offers the program for ages five through eighteen, from Monday through Thursday, 5:00 to 9:00 PM. Their main goal is to get kids off the streets, and into a safe and productive environment, particularly in a part of Salisbury that local leaders associate with a bad reputation.
"We've made a concerted effort in Church Street and Doverdale section of town," says Mayor Jim Ireton of Salisbury.
"These children came from these homes," says Maciarello.
Stop the Violence provides tutoring and offers numerous youth and teen centered programs as alternatives to violence and gang involvement, including basketball, cheerleading, presentations on a variety of topics, a book club, music, and tutoring. For the first time, they are offering two mentoring groups called "Ladies of Dignity" and "Extraordinary League of Gentlemen" for middle school and high school students.
"We're trying to teach these kids about life," says Nina East, board member with Stop the Violence. "We're teaching them about self-respect, money management, how to get a job, college, everything."
Maciarello says he often stops by the facility to interact with the kids, and that many law enforcement officials do the same. Due to the high rates of crime in the area, new police officers with the Salisbury Police Department have adopted certain parts of the neighborhood, and Maciarello says their relationship with the kids is extremely important.
"Until the kids realize the police our on their side, we're kind of just spinning our wheels."
There are currently more than 70 kids involved in the program, pulling an average 3.2 GPA. East says she hopes to make that number even higher, and to fill up the building every night. However, in order to do so, they need volunteers and money.
"We're always looking for help, we're really struggling right now."
East says she is extremely thankful for all of the local support. In June, the city passed a vote to award Stop the Violence with $20,000 for operating costs.
"The dividends of this $20,000 per year is going to pay off 100 times over," says Mayor Ireton. "This is all home to us, I don't want anyone to think we've given up on this section of town."
Maciarello says they want to make sure the program is well funded so the door stays open, and he hopes more facilities can open in Wicomico County so that other kids have the same opportunity.
"It's going to change these kids' lives, and it's going to change this community," says East.
To learn more about Stop the Violence, or see how you can help, visit their website.