Inside a Pasco church heated only by a few rays of sun, a former gang member stood in front of a group of teens and asked a puzzling question.
“What does your future look like?”
The room went quiet. A few kids fidgeted in their seats, waiting for someone else to speak up.
Jesse Campos cracked a joke to lighten the mood before he poked and prodded to dig out the answers he was looking for.
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Soon the teens’ private dreams for their lives began to spill out — a cosmetologist, a dental assistant, a Marine, a high school graduate.
Campos circled the group, his baggy jeans overlapping his Chuck Taylor sneakers as he revealed the meaning behind his original question.
“If you don’t have a goal in the end, is there any ambition to do anything?”
Campos, a street-savvy pastor who left the gang life in 1995, started an outreach program called F.I.R.M.E. in the Tri-Cities about two years ago.
The nonprofit focuses on helping young people leave gangs. F.I.R.M.E, slang in Spanish for cool, is an acronym for Finding, Impacting, Redirecting gangs through Mentorship and Education.
Just last week, the state awarded the program $133,000 to help it make more of a difference.
Campos left his job at Teen Challenge in Pasco to found an organization that aims to tackle one of the Tri-Cities’ most complex social issues.
He believed his experiences in the Tri-City gang culture, coupled with his tough-love approach, could make an impact on kids. So far, his organization has helped get an estimated 60 gang members onto a better path, he said.
“I think these young people are hungry for correction,” said Campos, a stout man with a tight fade and knack for street lingo. “They are hungry for somebody to love them. We don’t have a magic pill or potion, we just have to love them.”
It’s exactly that type of love that has opened Juan Martinez’s eyes to a possible world outside of gangs.
The 16-year-old, who came to the U.S. from Mexico as a child and now lives in Kahlotus, estimates he has been jailed more than 30 times for everything from being a suspect in a shooting to stealing cars.
Since meeting Campos in May, the self-admitted gang member has started regularly attending school for the first time in his life, he said.
Sitting inside the Pasco church — dressed head to toe in blue with a large flannel coat hiding the sag in his pants — Martinez cracks a wide smile as he talks about Campos filling the role of his parents, who died when Martinez was younger. His dad was murdered. His mom had cancer.
“The first time I saw him I thought he was some (counselor) from rehab,” Martinez said. “I thought, ‘What does this guy care?’ Then he told me he was a gangster. I looked at him and thought, ‘What’s so special about him that he can change and I can’t?’ ”
Campos faced many obstacles as he tried to make F.I.R.M.E. a respected organization.
Preparing gang members to get out is a difficult task in itself, but Campos also had to convince officials his nontraditional form of rehabilitation could work.
With the help of two former California gang members, who volunteered their time, Campos hit the streets to try to identify those who wanted out. He also set up presentations and meetings with law enforcement agencies.
He and his crew gained credibility because of their own gang experiences.
Campos’ right-hand man, Abraham Salazar, said he spent almost 25 years in California prisons. The 50-year-old from east Los Angeles is a former Big Hazard gangster who said he served time for assault and for gun and drug possession.
Salazar is an animated man with a neatly trimmed mustache and slicked back hair. When he rolls up the sleeves of his sweater, he uncovers the tattooed arms that serve as a reminder of his troubled past.
Salazar said he once robbed a van full of men of their drugs and money at gunpoint while he was on parole because the men tried to sell crack to a young girl in his neighborhood. At one point, he said he was facing almost 40 years for the robbery.
“Now it’s about building the kids up,” said Salazar, who works the graveyard shift at ConAgra Foods while he isn’t mentoring for F.I.R.M.E. “To get them to take a step back before they make a decision.”
Having former gangsters like Salazar and Frank Gomez — a Compton gang member who has been shot five times — helped Campos show kids that they don’t need gangs to be cared about.
“Man, these young people’s eyes just opened up and their hearts opened up too,” said Campos. “They had never seen a gang member who had changed before.”
F.I.R.M.E. began by recruiting four gang members who wanted to change.
Campos began talking to them and showing them there were positive alternatives to the gang life. Things like music, art and a job.
Within months, the number of gang members wanting help reached 25, and Campos realized his organization was becoming something powerful.
And he also saw police agencies begin to buy in.
Pasco Police Chief Robert Metzger was convinced F.I.R.M.E. could fill a huge hole in the Tri-Cities once he met Campos. He said he believed Campos had the perfect combination of street smarts and passion to positively affect gang members.
“It was just a great way to get somebody who has the expertise, knowledge and heart to go get these kids,” said Metzger, who now serves on F.I.R.M.E.’s board of directors. “I knew he wouldn’t quit. We have had (programs) to keep kids out of gangs before. But what do we do when they are already in them?”
A little more than a year after getting started, F.I.R.M.E. became one of the most talked about resources for gang outreach in the Mid-Columbia. The organization got contracts with the Benton-Franklin Juvenile Justice Center and the Sunnyside School District.
The juvenile center hired Campos to run a truancy program and the school district hired him to mentor gang members, Campos said. F.I.R.M.E. also started sending volunteers to the state prison in Walla Walla to work with gang members getting ready to be released.
Campos feels one of the reasons he has been successful is because the gang members can trust him and confide in him.
Metzger agreed. “He can relate to the gang members and they know he is not just going to run to the cops and tell them everything. He’s not there to feed us info. He’s not our snitch,” he said.
Campos’ truancy program was so effective that Benton Franklin Juvenile Justice Center officials recently expanded his role, said Darryl Banks, the center’s administrator. He now also will be working with kids who are locked up and on probation.
The truancy program has helped juveniles stay out of detention, Banks said. Instead of getting locked up for violations, offenders are sent to work with Campos.
“We have cut the number of kids going back to court in half,” he said. “This is really a passion and commitment for him. We don’t have anything else like this in the community.”
The hard work Campos has put in since starting F.I.R.M.E. paid off this week when the organization was one of three in the state to receive a $133,000 grant. That will help add at least two full-time outreach workers and allow Campos to implement a federal comprehensive gang model.
Campos is hoping to adopt an online school curriculum for students who are expelled and training for parents. He is optimistic the organization can continue to find grants and get community donations.
“We are really starting to take off,” Campos said.
Franklin County Prosecutor Shawn Sant, who is on F.I.R.M.E.’s board, said Campos’ program eventually could become an alternative to incarceration, much like the county’s drug court model.
In order for the model to work, Sant said F.I.R.M.E. will have to collaborate with numerous agencies and require gang members to sever all ties to their gangs.
“I would hope we would have a program at some time for gang members that want to break gang ties,” Sant said. “The education services Jesse is doing right now would be expanded to be able to create some type of program that would create a diversion. It would give (offenders) the opportunity to avoid a criminal conviction.”
Even with the support and love Campos showers on the kids he mentors, some, like Martinez, are left wondering if it is enough.
“I could leave (the gang), but with all the affiliation I have already, I just don’t know,” he said. “It would be weird to leave. I know don’t if I can do it. I guess anything is possible though, right?”