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Community organization gives alternative to drugs

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November 5, 2007

Albany--  What will it take to end gang activity? Some say tougher laws or more church involvement. The key to stopping gang violence could lie in the hands of community organizations.

For years, The Boys and Girls Club has welcomed kids through their doors. When they leave, center leaders make sure they have a clearer understanding of what path to follow.

They've made headlines.  The most recent is a 19-year-old shot to death, a victim of gang violence on Albany streets. "They're out to prove a point by getting in gangs," said Mel Johnson.

30-year-old Mel Johnson remembers growing up in Albany as a teen, running into small trouble time and again. "I've been in a couple of fights," said Johnson.

But now he says fists have been replaced with guns.  Neighborhood cliques have evolved into dangerous gangs. "It's basically sad because a lot of young kids coming up are thinking that's the way to go," said Johnson.

Johnson didn't choose that path. Instead, he came here to the Boys and Girls Club. "Keeping me out of trouble, helping me with my homework, making me stay focused," said Johnson.

The club is where a pool table's corner pocket is the focus rather than a street corner. The dribble of a basketball replaces drugs. "All of these things that are going on in the community today, they know when they come through our doors, it doesn't come beyond those doors," said Jason Belk.

More than 100 kids enter the doors of the center on Jefferson Street each day. Teenagers get constant counseling. A program called Smart Moves helps kids learn about saying no to drugs, alcohol and gangs. Center Service Director Jason Belk says it's working.

"That's what keeps you here, knowing you're making a difference," said Belk. 12-year-old Tony Powell has been part of the club for half of his life. It's already helped the future artist map out his future.

"It really doesn't make sense for someone to be in a gang. It's like you're walking away from having such a bigger place in life," said Powell.

For those who chose or plan to choose the gang life, Johnson has advice. "Stay focused. Stay out of trouble," said Johnson. It comes down to a choice between a club or a life of crime but it's the crime that seems to keep making headlines. Things could change though.

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