South County Youth Task Force inspired by effort to limit gang activity

The Day of the Child/Día del Niño event, held at San Ysidro Park in May, promoted the arts and children’s creativity and featured more than 15 diverse workshops for children.
Photo courtesy South County Youth Task Force

By Kaylee Arca

A decade ago, gang activity plagued South Valley. In response, local and federal law enforcement agencies spearheaded action that resulted in the arrest of 150 gang members. But local leaders knew policing alone wouldn’t solve the problem long-term.

Last summer, the Gilroy Police Department hosted an Ice Cream with a Cop where children could interact with officers.
Photo courtesy South County Youth Task Force

Gilroy and Morgan Hill citizens united to create the South County Youth Task Force, a collaborative effort to curb the school-to-prison pipeline through diversion programs like mentoring, recreation and skills training.

Guiding young people and keeping them out of trouble can be challenging. The SCYTF has proven its success in uplifting and empowering children and families in local communities by building diversion programs to keep kids engaged in positive activities.

The task force is a volunteer-based, non-political body in southern Santa Clara County. It creates a collaboration of local governments, school districts, community and faith-based organizations, and law enforcement agencies that are committed to serving, supporting, and uplifting youth so that they have the opportunity to thrive. The partnership creates programs and shares local resources to empower youth with prevention and intervention strategies.

“We started in 2012 because we had a lot of gang activity in both Morgan Hill and Gilroy,” said Bernice Aguilera, SCYTF program manager.

At that time, the Morgan Hill and Gilroy police chiefs had recently executed operations Royal Flush and Garlic Press. But, they wanted to further “curb the gangs’” local activities, she said.

“We found an opportunity to go into the community and work with the kids to disrupt the school-to-gang pipeline,” Aguilera said. “We wanted to add more activities and support.”

With seed funding from California’s Gang Reduction, Intervention and Prevention Program, SCYTF united the community-based agencies that were operating independently at the time. Now, their original team of five has grown to more than 60 across multiple agencies.

“To make sure we meet the needs of South County, we work with the community, our partners, and technical and policy teams, to focus on what we want to be in the community,” said Sandra Cruz, SCYTF coordinator. “We promote a safe and nurturing community that ensures stable access to opportunities, resources, and more.”

When SCYTF started, their outreach included going door-to-door and handing out flyers. They still hand out flyers, however, they’ve now built a large support system within South County.

“We transformed from idea to connection,” Aguilera said. “We do things with the community. Not for them, not to them. We do things together.”

“Bernice has really been crucial and instrumental in forming, developing, and founding the South County Youth Task Force,” Cruz said. “She’s been with the task force since the beginning. Every year she really strives to get us to the next stage. She’s the one who connects everyone and builds relationships, partnerships, and is always thinking of ways to grow. She makes things happen.”

One partner is local nonprofit Empowering Our Community for Success. Daniel Chavez started EOCS in 2013 with the idea to use sports to teach life skills to at-risk youth. Chavez oversees free late-night gyms, local handball tournaments, and a summer flag football league.

“We’ve created programs kids can come to,” he said. “We build relationships wherever they’re at in their lives.”

Chavez partnered with the San Francisco 49ers to host a free summer flag football league. They have multiple middle school and high school teams in Morgan Hill, Gilroy, and San Jose that practice once a week from June through September. The 49ers donate the uniforms and equipment, while referees and coaches volunteer their time.

“It’s about creating life skills and building relationships while learning conflict resolution and how to handle adversity on the football field,” he said.

For many of these kids, all they’ve heard is negative comments about them in school. Then their families come to watch and they get praised. Kids who had never been involved in sports have gone on to play high school football, which means they have to maintain a GPA and be good citizens while coping with adversity, Chavez explained.

He loves taking the kids to games and showing them new dreams they can have that they didn’t know were possible.

“One bad choice in these kids’ lives can really make a difference in their futures,” he said. “This diversion program is so important that we catch these kids and teach them how to be accountable.”

SCYTF also partners with Community Solutions, which provides mental health and youth support services. A 2023 Christopher High School graduate, Catherine Canseco has volunteered with the nonprofit for four years since she was a freshman. At first, she was hesitant and shy but decided to give it a try after her mom encouraged her.

This year, she helped lead the Gilroy Innovator Program at Community Solutions that helps youth survey their community to find what is lacking. The outreach found the youths desired family connections and conversations about healthy relationships.

The SCYTF partners with other local groups and agencies to create positive and inclusive safe spaces to help marginalized communities.

Kaylee Arca is a Morgan Hill-based freelance reporter.