HOLLAND, Mich. (WOOD) — The Holland Youth Connections Program is hoping to fill a void created when leaders of the Latin Kings gang went to prison.
Thirty-one people believed to be involved with the Holland Latin Kings were busted early last year. Several thought to be high-ranking members are now behind bars.
City and police leaders have described this as a unique time in the city of Holland, when there’s a real chance to convince younger people to leave a gang or not join in the first place.
“A lot of the leadership [of the Latin Kings] is gone and this is the time to reach out to what otherwise might be future members and offer an opportunity to see the world a different way,” Holland City Manager Ryan Cotton said.
The City of Holland is one sponsor of a summer job program for at-risk kids ages 14-17. It’s working alongside the Department of Public Safety, Escape Ministries, the West Coast Chamber of Commerce, Manpower, Ottawa County Michigan Works and Lakeshore Advantage.
The program, now in its second year, pays 77 at-risk kids $7.75 per hour to work for companies three days a week in the summer. At 20 work sites throughout Holland, the teens do manual labor like scraping paint, mulching and raking.
“It’s simple work, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy,” said Austin Boshell, a 17-year-old, second-time employee of the program.
The hard work now has the goal of preventing hard time later.
“There isn’t a lot of opportunity like this for people our age,” said 15-year-old worker Alejandro Barron.
All of the participants are at-risk youth.
Willie Watt Jr. — the leader of Escape Ministries, which helped found the program — said that some of the kids came straight from juvenile hall to be a part of the summer program. Other participants are current or former members of six different gangs, or friends or family members of gang members.
“We strategically put different kids on different teams so they can learn how to get along with each other, so when they see each other on the street, there’s less chance of an issue to happen if you know the other person,” said Watt.
“I used to have a lot of friends that were in Latin Kings and stuff and I used to know a lot of them and a lot of them are just gone now,” said Antonio Fernandez, a 16-year-old member of the program. “They’ve moved away or they’re in jail.”
Fernandez said several of his family members are in jail, as well. He said he sees a better way for himself.
“It actually is a better place to go,” he said. “It’s better than just staying on the street where you can end up messing up your life. Yeah, it’s fun in the beginning — you feel that family thing. But after a while, you realize it’s not worth it. You need to get your life together so you can appreciate what’s coming to you.”
“It’s just eye-opening that it’s just that easy,” said Boshell. “It’s just saying, you’re this gang, I’m this gang, we’re both broke, let’s come together and be awesome.”
Watt hopes that the program will turn into a year-round one.
For now, the city is currently seeking business sponsors for its third summer.