Keeping Kids Safe: A Formula That Works

Jul 23, 2010 | Updated May 25, 2011

When "A Better LA" took on the challenge of keeping kids safe in some of the toughest neighborhoods in Los Angeles, we looked for guys like Gary.

Gary has been through some sh*t. He grew up in an abusive home. He lived in a neighborhood where violence was a daily occurrence. It wasn't long before Gary began acting out and leading others to create chaos in his neighborhood. Gary eventually turned his life around, about the time in 2006 when one of his favorite neighborhood kids named Nikko was murdered in the local park. An older gang member randomly chose Nikko as a lesson for younger members in how to murder. Gary knew then that it was time to make a change. He dedicated his life to keeping kids safe and full of hope, to never losing another kid like Nikko.

Despite spending billions on law enforcement, we have learned that police just can't be everywhere to prevent violence. We are huge fans of, and partners with, the Sheriff's Department and LAPD. They need our help. Thousands of parents in our great city still worry every day as they watch their children walk out the door. In one South LA neighborhood alone, there were 34 murders and hundreds of aggravated assaults. In one year! That means violent crime happens every day and a murder happens every week and a half. A survey from the same neighborhood a few years ago showed that many kids drop out of school by 6th grade because of fear related to just getting to school. Among 6th grade students, over 50% reported seeing someone killed or beaten in their neighborhood. Imagine being a parent or child who faces that reality every day.

This is not a problem happening in some distant land. It is happening here, in forgotten communities in America -- in our own front yards. How did we let any of our communities get to a state where our own kids are not safe? It is unacceptable beyond words.

So, we turned to Gary (and others like him) for help. He is a natural leader. Just as people followed him to do negative things, people now follow him to do positive things. He lives in the middle of the kids we are trying to help and has the time and desire to be at the school, in the park or on the streets protecting our kids from violence every day. Training, funding and other resources make his effort sustainable, not some band-aid solution. And imagine being a kid walking to school and being threatened with your life. Who would you want to see on the corner protecting you? A traditional crossing guard? I'd pick Gary.

We have seen this simple strategy work over and over again. In areas targeted by A Better LA's outreach workers, homicides are down 60%, 22%, 69% and 72% respectively. Aggravated assaults in Gary's areas went down 43% last year. In the last few years, workers, along with law enforcement, have saved dozens of lives.

For the first time in years, kids are coming out of isolation and fear and engaging in positive activities. They are walking to school safely and playing in parks that used to be wastelands. And at every turn, someone like Gary is patrolling the school, coaching football at the park, teaching life skills at the community center, referring them to social services and talking about hope, dreams and a new normal of healthy living.

It's as if the simple act of believing in Gary has ignited a cycle of hope -- kids who used to feel under siege or thrown away now feel that they too have the opportunity to pursue their goals and dreams without fear. With each successful experience of safety and hope, more and more kids start to believe, which in turn inspires more people like Gary to step up and lead. It is an awesome domino effect.

We recently launched a campaign to raise critical funds to train and sustain outreach workers like Gary. The average salary for an outreach worker is $32,000. One worker keeps hundreds of kids safe every day. That breaks down to less than $4 per day to keep a kid safe.

We need your help. Please donate any amount at A Better LA's website, and help us ignite new cycles of hope for our kids.

And when we say "our kids," we don't just mean kids in South LA. Our vision is to spread this model. People have called us from all over the country to inquire about how to duplicate this effort. Your donation helps us make A Better LA, and helps build capacity to ignite hope wherever it is needed.