As bullets continue to fly in Surrey, one mom talks to the ‘Now-Leader’ – under the condition of anonymity – about what it was like to discover her son was in a gang. And, as a prevention program expands into elementary schools for the first time, the mother says parents must watch for signs to keep kids out of gangs – and out of prison.
A Surrey mom is speaking out in an effort to urge parents to pay attention so their child doesn’t end up where hers did: In a gang, in prison, or in her son’s case, both.
Cheryl, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, says she’ll never forget the moment she found out her son was in a gang.
She was sitting in a lawyer’s office when she learned just how deeply involved he was – and how violent he had become.
It’s a moment that’s burned into Cheryl’s memory.
Her son had been in trouble with the law before, but the details she learned that day still haunt her.
“For a long time, not even certain family members knew what was going on,” Cheryl said of her son’s criminal background, a record which the Now-Leader has verified.
“When he was arrested and they charged him, it took me four months to even tell my mother.”
Her son has spent years in prison. People she knows have been killed. She’s spent countless hours in a criminal lawyer’s office, many more visiting her son in jail. Mounds of money has been spent on her son’s lawyers. She was on stress leave from work for two years.
“When I look back at his life, I think, ‘Wow, where the hell was I? The signs were there, but where was I?’” she said. “When you’re parenting, your concern is food on the table, rent or mortgage paid, they’re in school, doing well in school, you try to minimize the friends they have so they’re not getting into the wrong space. I missed a few things in that process. I blamed a lot on myself. Now I know it was his age: Being that 12, 13, 14 age. The people he was hanging out with.
“You just have no control.”
Another memory Cheryl wishes she could erase from her memory was the look on a police officer’s face after reading her son’s rap sheet.
She was at the police station to file a report against her son, after he had threatened her over the phone from prison, said Cheryl.
“He’s looking at my son’s file, and he’s pulling up everything. I can’t see it. But he just turned around, hit escape on his computer, and said, ‘My advice to you is to not have any more contact with your son. It’s not safe. You need to walk away, for your safety and the rest of your family’s safety.’”
Until that point, she hadn’t realized just how entrenched her son had become.
“When you have a constable you’ve never met before and can say something like this to you, it’s got to be pretty significant.”
But Cheryl admitted she knew long before that moment that she had lost her son.
“I remember saying, ‘But I’m your mother.’ He said, ‘Mom, this is my family.’ He already identified with his friends as family. I was his mother but they’re his family. And that is true to gang life.”
Know the signs, be involved
Cheryl said she wish she knew then, what she knows now.
“When raising a child, we don’t look at them and think they’ll try to murder someone one day. Or join a gang…. Do you really know that child? I thought I knew my child. My kid was in prison. He could be a straight A student, could’ve done everything you asked him to, that doesn’t mean he’s not in a gang.”
She said every detail is important, from who their friends are to what their hobbies are to the way they dress.
“The clothing, the chains, the rapping. What they watch on TV. People that they hang out with.”
Looking back at her son in those early years, she said “it was all starting.”
She was involved in her child’s school, but urged parents to be as involved as possible. Cheryl also said it’s important to be cognizant of disorders, like ADHD or Bipolar.
“Pay attention to the risk factors of it.”
Cheryl said it’s also important to look for signs of antisocial behaviour, and how children deal with disappointment.
Plus, pay attention to anger.
“The type of anger,” she said. “There’s being angry at things that aren’t fair being pissed off, then there’s the rage anger. I didn’t recognize it as that. I just recognized it as being angry with us.”
She said in her son’s case, he only had a few friends, because he didn’t trust anybody else.
“He was more of a follower than a leader. I think he’ll always be that,” said Cheryl. “So watch for patterns of behaviour.
“So here I am now, I have no contact with my son. I’ve lost some friends along the way. Gained some really good friends. I know where I’m safe,” she remarked. “I still don’t understand why my son did what he did. But it was his choice. And for me to realize that at the end, to think he was old enough to make that decision. He knew right from wrong.
“A few times I thought about walking into a facility and saying, ‘Help me. I can’t cope.’”
Elementary school intervention key
Cheryl says she is contemplating sharing her story with children in elementary schools, and their parents.
“They need to start addressing this when these kids are in elementary school. If they don’t….” she said, her voice trailing off. “You see it on the news, a 17-year-old was shot and killed. It’s happening earlier and earlier.”
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While it might be shocking to hear that 15-year-olds are involved in drugs and gangs, in reality it’s happening even earlier than that, she said.
“I think it would have probably helped my son,” she said of an early intervention program.
“I was always involved in schools. Even though I was a working parent I was still involved in my kids’ lives, because that’s what I would do,” she said, “If this had come up in schools, I would have attended.
“I would love to be able to take this and go and talk to kids in Grade 6 and 7 with their parents and say, ‘This is the time. You need to start.’ When they’re in Grade 6 and grade 7, screw the high school years, they’re going to be more independent. When they’re 12, 13, 14, that’s when you really have to haul them in and be the most horrible parent you think you’re going to be, but it’s protecting your child. These gang people, they look for the vulnerable. The one kid. And they haul that one in. Trouble at home. Doesn’t understand his parents. (The gangs) pull this one in, then he pulls that one in, then that one.”
Cheryl said she can’t help but wonder if an anti-gang program for her son would have altered her son’s path in life.
Such a program helped Surrey resident Ary Azez when he was in high school.
Now, the Surrey man is leading the expansion of an anti-gang program into eight Surrey elementary schools this fall.
Azez got involved in the YoBro YoGirl program at Kwantlen Park Secondary about five years ago, when he was in with the wrong crowd.
“When you have a close-knit community of friends, as soon as you have some external threat, even if it’s not a real threat, everybody wants to act on it,” he added.
“That leads up to these little mini gangs without you even realizing it. Then at some point kids are forming real gangs…. Once you solidify yourselves, and you have a name, a neighbourhood you’re trying to govern, at that point it becomes too much.”
Accidentally stumbling across some other kids practicing Jiu-Jitsu in the gymnasium after school one day in Grade 10 changed his life.
He soon invited his friends to join YoBro.
Some did, he said, and those people went on to graduate high school, then to post-secondary or working.
The ones that didn’t? Some have been killed. Others have overdosed on drugs.
“It’s just very common, unfortunately,” he said.
Azez has now come full circle, going from being a participant in the anti-gang program to becoming its current program facilitator, and is in his second year of university studying engineering.
Azez said the goal with the elementary students at eight Surrey schools this fall is to “plant that seed” and “build a connection” so when the kids enter high school, they know they have a safe place to go.
“We’re currently in our final stages of assessment as we try to figure out which schools need the program the most,” Azez told the Now-Leader on in mid-September.
“Things should be ready within the next week or so.”
It’s important to reach kids early, said Azez, because kids are dying.
YoBro YoGirl founder Joe Calendino, who had a lifestyle or crime before creating the program in 2009, is an inspiration to Azez.
Though Azez been to police presentations at school, none of that took. It wasn’t until he met Calendino that he saw a different way. Azez related to him.
“He had to bury one of his students from a school just down the street. It was always very hard-hitting and close to home, his talks. It was always reoccurring as well, almost every couple weeks we’d have to sit down and here something new from him. He would just sort of inform us, he didn’t push it down our throats…. Knowledge was his way of deterring us away from everything but pulling us in with a fun program that doesn’t feel like it’s a chore.
“Kids need someone who’s lived their life and been down that road. That was the changing point for us. We looked up to him.”
And that, said Azez, is the key to the program’s success.
But it’s a tough job.
Some schools are more challenging than others, he revealed, with many at-risk youth already sliding down the slippery slope of crime.
“At that point it’s like a salvage job. You’re trying to save who you can,” Azez said slowly.
“You start small and you hope it grows. Even if you help one person, it means the world to that one person and their family.”
Azez said the program’s biggest challenge is not being able to help all those who ask for it, with requests coming in from other provinces, such as Alberta and Ontario.
“But we’re doing what we can,” he added.
“We’re helping the people that are closest to us.”
Surrey, for one.
“Surrey, unfortunately, the way things have been going for the past few years and perhaps more, it’s going downhill. Whether you look at drug use, even murders.
“Back in 2015 when there was 22 shootings in Surrey in six weeks, you open the news article and then you see a face and think, ‘Hey I know that guy.’ I knew the guy. I wasn’t expecting it to be somebody I know, these are kids who are 18, 19, and their mug shots are on the news.
“At that point, it really kicked in what my program stands for. We’re trying to avoid all of this.”