Kids attending summer camp typically play ball, swim and learn crafts.
But a group of about 30 youngsters at the Delavan-Grider Community Center got a lesson on the dangers and risks of gang life Thursday afternoon.
They sat on bleachers and listened as a former associate of the Schuele Boys gang told them about the consequences of bad decisions and the power of good choices.
His message: Make the right choices.
“It’s about the choices you make,” he said to the youngsters between the ages of 8 and 13. “The guys I hung out with, they didn’t make the right choices. At this age, it’s about whom you hang with and what the other kids are doing.”
Many of the people he hung around in the Schuele Boys now face felony charges and could spend decades behind bars.
He made the wrong decisions, he said, “and now I’m paying for it.”
Even if friends are breaking the law, it’s best to just not get involved, he added.
“Smuggling weed, that type of thing, it’s not good,” he said. “If you know anybody who’s doing it, you stay away from it.”
The young man who spoke – he was not identified by authorities who escorted him to the community center – pleaded guilty earlier this year to criminal charges and is now awaiting sentencing, facing up to 16 months in prison.
For a time, the Schuele Boys were considered one of the most dangerous gangs in Buffalo. Over the last year, 28 members have been indicted on charges including drug trafficking, racketeering and murder, resulting in nine convictions.
The former gang associate said he was happy to be able to talk to the children and persuade them to stay away from drugs and crime. He encouraged them to stay in school.
“I’m 30 years old, and I’m in school,” he said. “It’s eye-opening. Make sure you play ball, play sports. Whatever you like doing – say, coloring – do it. Occupy your time, keep doing positive things.”
About 70 youngsters participate in the community center’s 10-week summer camp. The camp arranges a variety of activities for the kids, including swimming, playing sports and doing arts and crafts.
Also on hand to speak Thursday were U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr., Buffalo Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda and Buffalo police officers, along with representatives from the Stop the Violence Coalition.
Hochul, who has been a prosecutor for about 30 years, said he had never seen a gang associate return to a community to speak to and teach children.
“I frankly believe it took a great deal of courage,” he said afterward. “Having seen the children’s faces and hearing their questions, I believe they benefited greatly.”
Murray Holman, executive director for the Stop the Violence Coalition, said it was important to have a local figure grab the children’s attention.
“He’s from the ’hood, and someone might know him,” Holman said. “If they can see him being humble, maybe they can turn their mind around a little bit.”
After the Schuele Boys associate and Hochul finished speaking, the youngsters surrounded a couple of Buffalo police officers and tossed out questions about handcuffs, badges and police work.
That meeting and mingling of the youngsters with law enforcement officers and other adult role models in a neutral setting has a positive effect, said Candace S. Moppins, director of the community center.
“Typically, when you see the police, they’re coming to a situation that’s often violent, usually negative,” she said. “Today, it was positive. They understand that police protect them, and that’s what it’s all about.”