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Building A Bridge Called Community

Thomas D. Segel 

Harlingen, Texas, February 7, 2011:  Across the United States increasing juvenile crime is taking a huge toll on municipalities and governmental agencies.  Some cities report it is almost beyond control.  Other locales either pretend it does not exist or downplay this ever-increasing crime problem.  Here is how one county and city in Deep South Texas is addressing the issue.  

 The year was 2008 and in this city of less than 75,000 people concern was growing that the future of many local youth was facing serious peril.  Already on record were 2632 young people who had been referred to the Cameron County Juvenile Justice system for actions ranging from criminal mischief to felonies.  There were 450 teenage criminals in the 15 to 16 year old age group and another 259 young people ages 14 and under who had been apprehended for various felonious acts.  There were even 5 convicted felons who were just 10 years old.  It could no longer be denied, anti-social behavior among the juvenile population of Harlingen, Texas had passed the tipping point. 

Mayor Chris Boswell convened a citizen’s committee to research what appeared to be a very serious problem.  The group labored for a year seeking ideas and methods to salvage the lives of a troubled generation.  The Harlingen Police Department’s Gang Eradication Team partnered with the Cameron County Juvenile Justice’s Border Gang Task Force to reduce the gang activity and crime committed by chronic offenders in the City of Harlingen. To reach that objective the City of Harlingen and the Cameron County Juvenile Justice Department formed a partnership to offer a comprehensive range of community based programs designed to provide opportunities for success to the youth and young adults of the community. 

It was agreed that a combination of services should to be provided for all of the teenage needs to be met.  It was also felt that one-stop-shopping, or having all the required services under the same roof would lead to maximum participation.  Toward that objective the city provided the use of its former police station, which would be converted into a Community Outreach Center. The idea was to develop the spirit of “inclusion” as opposed to “exclusion” of those living on the edge of society.  It was felt this structure with all of its services combined would help to create a bridge between the youth and the community.  What could be a more fitting name for the program…it is to be called “The Bridge”. This is a place where needs will meet opportunities. 

The cooperative partnership between government and civic non-profit organizations is now in the process of reconfiguring the former police station into a functioning building where a wide variety of services ranging from a physical fitness gymnasium and a yoga-dance exercise room to a municipal juvenile court and a building-trades shop will all be housed under a single roof. 

Program services will include such groups as the Valley Aids Council, Criminon and Narconon who will assist young people with gang related, substance abuse and health related problems.  The Gulf Coast program will be in place to help educate those seeking to receive their GED certification. Harlingen Consolidated Independent School District will offer dropout recovery education programs.  Spiritual counseling and faith inspiring ministries will be available, as will general counseling and family services. Texas Workforce Solutions will also be onsite to screen youth and young adults for possible job placement. 

This, however, is just a small element of the overall program.  The mission statement of The Bridge reads, “It is the mission of the Cameron County Juvenile Justice Department and the City of Harlingen to work in partnership with other entities to provide a comprehensive range of community based programs for the purpose of providing opportunities for success to the youth and young adults of our community. The ultimate goal is to create responsible and productive, job skilled and educated, law abiding and tax paying citizens for our community.”  

Toward that objective Youth Build will be offering a strong vocational program, including the teaching of a variety of home building related skills.  The Texas Workforce will be involved in job readiness, computer skills, job training and a job placement program.  Texas State Technical College will be providing services, as will the Harlingen Family Dentistry Group and the Harlingen Sports Center. 

All of The Bridge activities and services will be under the supervision of Juvenile Justice Department Chief Tommy Ramirez, Youth Programs Coordinator Annie Romero and Juvenile Probation Supervisor Michael Martinez.  The youth leaders have already demonstrated these combined education and training programs work, even when not concentrated in a single locale.  In the three years since those 2632 Harlingen referrals were made in 2008, they have reduced the number to 1918 referrals in 2010 for a 53% success rate.  It is anticipated a much greater percentage of success stories will be seen when the programs operate under a single umbrella organization. 

The construction of “The Bridge” is ongoing and is only limited by available funding.  The Bridge group is seeking $200,000 in donations to complete the facility.  This will be a one-time expense, as all participating organizations will provide their own funding once they become operational.  Tax deductible donations can be made payable to Cameron County Juvenile Justice Department, P.O. Box 1690, San Benito, Texas 78586. 

The poet Will Allen Dromgoole, in his lengthy work “The Bridge Builder”, had these words to offer: “There followeth after me today, 
 A youth, whose feet must pass this way. 
This chasm, that has been naught to me, 
To that fair-haired youth may a pitfall be. 
 He, too, must cross in the twilight dim; 
 Good friend, I am building this bridge for him.” You too, can help build  bridges to help our troubled youth.

A LOOK AT THE FUTURE:  Annie Romero, the Youth Programs Coordinator for the Cameron County Juvenile Justice Department, examines a T-shirt donated to “The Bridge” organizing group to help with fund raising efforts.  A total of $200,000 is needed as a one-time reconstruction fund to renovate the former Harlingen Police Station into a community outreach center to serve troubled and at-risk youth.

Semper Fidelis

Thomas D. Segel

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