A grassroots group of city residents are working on a plan to bring anti-gang and drug messages directly to New Brunswick and Somerset youth.
Cuqui Rivera is a volunteer for the S.K.A.R. (Support Kids At Risk) program, founded by Hispanic Americans for Progress (HAP) Self Help Inmate Group, a group of men serving time at New Jersey State prison for various crimes.
The purpose of the S.K.A.R. program is to inform youth of the realities of what drugs and criminal involvement can lead to.
A group of city residents have been meeting to discuss how to implement the program in New Brunswick and Somerset, and on Wednesday, met at the Making a Change Clubhouse on Hamilton Street in Somerset to view a film created by the inmates about life in prison.
The main question now is "What's next?"
Rivera has brought S.K.A.R. to more than 100 schools throughout New Jersey over the past 10 years, but the program has weakened.
The New Brunswick area is a good place to start, as it has a community of reformed former gang members and rehabilitated prisoners who are looking to turn their negative life experiences into a positive message, she said.
According to statistics provided by "Kids Count!" an annual study of youth trends nationwide, 12,000 juveniles were arrested in Middlesex County in 2012.
That same year, the average daily population of juvenile detention facilities in Middlesex County was 56,000 youths.
This problem is particularly severe for minority youth, Rivera said.
For every white youth imprisoned, there are eight minority youths imprisoned, she said, a problem she referred to "modern-day slavery."
Rivera brought with her three local men who all did time in prison, and have started over on the other side.
Victor Guzman, a former New Brunswick resident who now lives in Florida and works on houses, said he did time at NJ State Prison for manslaughter charges.
The crowd he ran with before his arrest abandoned him, his sentence separated him from his then-two year old daughter, and worst of all, he said, his mother died while he was locked up.
"I haven't celebrated Christmas or Thanksgiving in 29 years because my mother wasn't around," he said.
Guzman's story echoes the testimonies of the men featured in the S.K.A.R. video, nearly all of which said that prison time isn't to be taken lightly.
Slaps on the wrist are rare, and often times, prisoners' family members cannot take care of them, or the life they left behind, they said.
"You really are going to be on your own," Rivera said.
Moving forward, Rivera said that the group of city residents discussing the local implementation of the program needs to expand to include more parents, and it needs to be shown to area youth, and not just the at-risk kids.
City activist Tormel Pittman said the message needs to be strong and supportive, because youth and gang violence in this area is a complex problem.
"It's more intricate than you can ever imagine," he said. "We can't go in with a lackluster attitude."
Rivera said it was important to create a dialogue "with" local teens who are at risk of drugs and gangs, and not to talk "at" them.
"When you speak with someone...sometimes the softer you speak, the louder you are heard," she said