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David Maravilla (Photo by James Allen Walker for WORLD)

'Things a dad would do'

Compassion | WORLD's West Region Winner, Hope Now for Youth, teaches former gang members about how to live and work as Christian men

Issue: "Face-off," Aug. 13, 2011

FRESNO, Calif.-When David Maravilla gives a tour of his former neighborhood, he points to grim landmarks: "I had my first drug overdose right over there." Motioning across the street, he adds: "I had my second one there."

Maravilla remembers the day that a counselor from a local ministry approached him in a backyard full of gang members, drugs, and guns. He offered to help Maravilla find a job and gave him a card bearing the ministry's name: Hope Now for Youth. Maravilla says he threw the card and scoffed: "Man, there ain't no hope here."

After serving more than three years in the California Youth Authority (a state jail for youth), Maravilla tired of gangs and crime. Christian counselors at Hope Now helped Maravilla find a job. On June 29, at a busy street corner near Fresno's juvenile detention center, I watched Maravilla spot two teenage boys buying drugs from a local dealer on a weekday morning. He hopped out of the van-and extended a Hope Now for Youth card.

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The boys said they knew about the ministry but didn't want to start the program now. Maravilla, today a Hope Now staff member, offered a sober warning: "Right now is your chance."

The Hope Now ministry flowed from a desire to give chances to Fresno youth languishing in a culture of gangs and crime: After the Los Angeles race riots in 1992, Roger Minassian, a Fresno pastor, met with local ministers to discuss the gang violence afflicting their city.

A year later Minassian started Hope Now with a simple idea: Offer gang members decent jobs and consistent relationships with Christian men. The hope: Meaningful work and a Christian foundation would change their lives. More than 18 years later, Hope Now reports that it has placed over 1,700 at-risk young men into first-time jobs and helped many break a cycle of poverty and crime that often goes back generations.

Now, at a borrowed building with a few meeting rooms and a garage near downtown Fresno, a staff of seven men oversees Hope Now's efforts: The program targets at-risk men (ages 16-24) ensnared in gangs or crime, and also helps young men with gang members in their immediate family.

The requirements are simple: Attend Bible studies and classes on subjects like job skills, money management, marriage, and parenting. Complete odd jobs (like landscaping or cleaning) that the ministry provides to help build a work ethic and provide needed cash. Throughout the process, counselors like Maravilla help guide clients and provide one-on-one counseling.

When a young man completes the program, often within a month, he must attend a practice job interview with a staffer and pass a drug test if he's admitted using drugs within the last few weeks. Hope Now then connects him with an employer willing to offer opportunities to gang members, some with serious criminal records. Most have never held a legitimate job.

When clients enter the program, Hope Now staffers know the challenges: Some may not make it on the first try, and some might not make it at all.

Anthony Lopez did not cut ties with gangs and crime during his first try with Hope Now. Lopez says his father wasn't around, his mother suffered from a drug addiction, and his neighborhood was "total chaos. It's like a Third World country." Still, it was his choice to commit the crime for which he served time-for assault, but he also returned to Hope Now.

This time, Lopez had new motivation: two children and a newfound faith in Christ: "The program taught me about Jesus, it taught me about a family ethic, and it taught me how to be a working man." I visited him in the offices of Fresno Dental Surgery Center: Clad in blue scrubs, black sneakers, and latex gloves, Lopez carefully disassembled instruments and painstakingly sterilized tools for dental surgeries at the clinic, which serves children from low-income families.

On some days he helps prepare for surgeries. It's a serious job that requires a serious commitment. "I never thought I'd have a job like this," says Lopez. "People still can't believe I do this." Vickie Kasprzyk, the clinic's owner, can. She hired Lopez and another Hope Now graduate despite their past troubles because she wants to offer them a chance: "No one else is going to give them a leg up if we don't start somewhere." She says Lopez has performed beautifully since taking the job in January.

Matthew Messer, owner of Trail-Gear, a Fresno company that makes components for off-road, recreational vehicles, was wary when Hope Now staffers asked him to consider hiring former gang members in 2002: "I want people to feel safe, and I don't want drama."

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