The last time I made the sign of the cross was March 3, 2006, as my aunt wailed over the casket of her 15-year-old son. Eddie Lopez was killed by a single gunshot that hit his back and penetrated his heart. His last words were “my mom … ” and his eyes shut forever. He fell by a tree in front of the theater where I often performed. A stranger who heard the gunshot held Eddie’s head in the last seconds of his short life.

My cousin’s aspirations for college were not cut down in that single moment by a bullet, but over the years by a community that failed to act.

Last Tuesday, not only did we drop upon hearing the gun shots that killed Richard Juarez at Virginia Avenue Park, but the incident also brought back tears of pain and trauma of when Eddie passed away. Some youths in Santa Monica, like the teen who killed my cousin, lack the self-discovery, the discipline, and the courage to change the courses of their lives. The fault lies not with those youths, but with community members who ignore the social problems taking place in their own backyards.

How can we, as Santa Monica residents, make a difference in the lives of our youths to keep them from becoming entangled in gang life? The answer lies in a renewed commitment to public service. Most Santa Monica residents are highly qualified and capable of enabling at-risk youths to succeed in the face of their struggles. By volunteering with local youth organizations, residents can bring hope and guidance. We can collaborate with their teachers and counselors to keep our youth on track with their academics. We can introduce them to new skills, not only technical skills like how to build a Web site, but life skills that help them to fulfill their potential. We can serve as the role models for a generation at risk.

I know the importance of a strong role model and mentor. I was 13 years old when Leigh Curran, founder of The Virginia Avenue Project (VAP), reached out to me. She spoke to my mother about how theater and spoken poetry would allow me to gain confidence. The VAP is an afterschool program in Santa Monica that uses the performing arts in conjunction with long-term, one-on-one mentoring to help kids discover their potential. By continuously checking my progress, Leigh provided me with attention, hope, and confidence so that I could imagine going to USC and graduate from a school like Harvard. Leigh could not have done this without the local professional artists who volunteered at the VAP.

Some people outside of Santa Monica may be surprised that my cousin was killed precisely here. However, this incident — and similar shootings like the one last week — under the glitz of a wealthy city, not far from the former residence of Gov. Schwarzenegger.

Youth violence plagues all cities and affects families from of all backgrounds. The Pico Neighborhood is sporadically infested by the same kind of violence found in the rough neighborhoods in East Los Angeles or Compton. Similarly, the Pico Neighborhood has a significantly larger Latino population than the rest of the city and a higher percentage of children.

Comprised mainly of renters, the neighborhood is home to many families with median household incomes below the poverty level. Impoverished youths often resort to gang life as an alternative to the mainstream norms of an education and career. In fact, through its own street-culture norms and activities, gang life itself often thwarts youths from completing their educations or realizing their potential. According to a 2008 Harvard report, nearly half of the Latino and African-American students enrolled in California high schools in 2005 failed to graduate.

Youth are not violent by nature. They become violent. Programs like the VAP in Santa Monica are necessary in the Pico Neighborhood. In fact, 100 percent of participants from the VAP graduate from high school, 90 percent go to college, and 85 percent are the first in their family to do so. If the teenager who took Eddie’s life had a mentor, maybe today Eddie, an honor student and captain of the Santa Monica High baseball team, would now be the freshman at Princeton that he aspired to be. At-risk youth need our attention. When we fail to provide the adequate resources and services they need, youth are more likely to seek that attention from a gang.

We must never stop looking for alternatives that will help underprivileged youth succeed. Making the sign of the cross is not the solution. It is the end of a failed process that led to Eddie’s and Richard’s deaths among others, and to the incarceration of the teenager who took his life. Hope is driven by empathy, affection, and attention from mentors like those at the VAP. Environmental pressures and cultural identity issues are a constant source of consternation that handicap youth from acquiring the tools necessary to achieve purpose in the face of uncertainty. To imagine possibility by trumping the politics of probability is a skill that should not be expected from a child but provided by a collective force of civic engagement. On your next Saturday morning errand run, consider stopping by Virginia Avenue Park to rap, dance, and paint at the Teen Center with one of us.

Aranzasú De La O grew-up in the Pico Neighborhood and attended Santa Monica public schools on the dual-language Spanish immersion track. She participated in extra-curricular activities offered at Virginia Park as a child, and is a recent graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School. She can be reached at adelao@gmail.com.

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