By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Since that time, 16-year-old Jesus was put into detention on a burglary charge. If it hadn't been for Marcos' involvement, project employees wouldn't have known about Jesus. Souza and Garcia helped get him released early, on the condition that he works or goes to school. They're helping with that, too.
His brothers aren't so sure, but Jesus says the experience has made him decide to give up gang life. He can call Kimo and Tony anytime his homeboys give him trouble, Jesus says, and they'll come and get him.
"They've been there for me," he says. "They're pretty cool. I like them a lot."
Not everyone is so receptive. Sometimes a family refuses to meet with staff. If that happens, says Dan Zorich, "We keep the door open. We've had families come back to us months later that initially didn't want to work with us, and then we told them that if you do need us call us, and they show up at our doorstep."
Same with the gang members. "A lot of the kids we work with would blow us off for six months and then turn up again, need our help."
The program has actually busted participants who violate their probation. "Two guys in particular went to prison," Zorich says. "They got released from prison, then a couple months after they were out they were back at our door, asking for help. There was no animosity. How many people could you violate, send to prison, and they would come back and ask for your assistance?"
The reason, Zorich maintains, is the program's light touch. Often a kid will visit his probation officer for months before he begins to talk to anyone else.
But if a kid does want to visit the project, he or she is catered to. A 15-passenger van shuttles back and forth to the neighborhoods, although Zorich insists he doesn't run a taxi service.
Another difference between Mesa's project and other intervention programs: Mesa does not have a zero-tolerance approach.
"Even if we don't get the kids totally disengaged from their gang lifestyle, if we can get them engaged in other things, other opportunities, maybe they won't be participating in the violence. Because a lot of the associations that these kids have with their gang friends are normal peer relationships -- normal for them," Zorich says.
"Maybe for these kids, being a gang member still holds some value for them. And who am I to say that your relationships are inappropriate? It's aspectsof those relationships that are probably inappropriate."
Zorich and his staff try to stay patient.
Kimo Souza: "A lot of people come in and the next day you won't see them. You won't see them for a month, two months. And when they come in, it's not like, 'Where were you? I dropped 10 messages off.' It's, 'Hey, good to see you! What's up? How's your mom, how's your family?'
". . . We know how it is. We know how the system works. We don't make any of those judgments. We're looking for more of the quality of the relationship, and it's an ongoing one. I have a lot of respect for anybody that walks in here. I'm not quite sure if I'm that strong. I'm not quite sure if I could ever walk in here."
Two years ago, Todd's father tracked him down in Los Angeles and asked if he wanted to come live with him in Mesa. Todd had never known his dad -- "the only thing I ever knew about him was that he had a big-ass beard" -- but he agreed to move to Arizona.
Why did his father surface, after 17 years?
"I guess my dad had a dream or something that I had got killed, and it fucked him up a little bit," Todd says.
It wasn't a far-fetched notion. Todd had been deeply involved in a gang called Gangster Disciples for years.
"All my life, growing up, being good hasn't been no fun. It's always been easy to just say, 'Fuck it,' and do your own thing." Despite his tough talk, Todd's a personable kid with gray eyes that match his tee shirt, a shaved head and tattoos on his hands.
Todd's parents split when he was young, and not long thereafter his mom left Todd and his brother, who's a year younger, to the State of California.
"I don't really know her. All I know about her is I don't want to know her," says Todd.
The brothers lived all over -- "foster home to foster home, placement to placement, boys home to boys home, too many places," Todd recalls.
They started making trouble when Todd was 12, sneaking out of the house.
"We'd terrorize the neighborhood all night long. We were destructive kids, just run around breaking shit, throwing rocks through windows. Stupid shit. We got in a lot of trouble."
So what? "My foster mom didn't really have no say over me. She wasn't my mom anyway, how could she tell me what to do?"
The boys fought, broke things, started fires. "We wouldn't light anyone's house on fire or anything, we'd just light a dumpster to watch the cops come and put it out. It started out little."