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Community takes aim at area's gang problem
Jim Sargent, Hall County school system director of student services, speaks Thursday during a community action meeting at St. Michael Catholic Church in Gainesville. Sargent said that he believes gang issues are a youth problem that transcends race. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Maybe something positive will come from the tragic death of Juan "Baby P-Nut" Gomez.

The 16-year-old gang member was shot and killed by a member of a rival gang earlier this month, authorities say. His death has inspired a group of concerned area residents to organize and combat the county’s gang problem.

The group met for the first time Thursday at St. Michael Catholic Church to share their experiences and offer possible solutions. By the end of the meeting, they had decided to meet again next month and bring more people.

While the group discussed solutions to the county’s gang problem, Gloria Tanner, supervisor of the Gainesville office of the United Methodist Children’s Home, said gang intervention would require bringing together nonprofit agencies across the county.

"These kids have holes in their hearts and they’re looking for a place to fill it," Tanner said.

Jim Sargent who works with the Hall County school system, said advocates have to be careful not to discuss the problem exclusively as a Latino problem.

"It’s a youth problem, and it’s a criminal problem," he said.

And Merrianne Dyer, superintendent of Gainesville’s school system, said while the focus of gang intervention is usually placed on children, there needs to be a support network for parents, too.

Some in the group shared experiences when they had run-ins with local gangs. Anne Finlayson, who came representing a local Boy Scout troop that holds a regular soccer program at Milliken Field, said there have been instances when the group had some of its property vandalized and items stolen.

"There have been a few instances that have made people scared," she said.

While the stories and opinions of solutions were varied, the group seemed to agree on at least one thing: It would take members from all sides of the community coming together to keep the kind of incident that ended Gomez’s life from happening again.

Afterward, the group decided to meet monthly and invite other members of the community to become involved.

"We need to get more organized," Sotelo said.

Denise Wilson, who said she lived near where Gomez was murdered, and Father Fabio Sotelo, a priest at St. Michael and a leader in the Latino community, organized Thursday’s meeting.

Wilson said she hoped the meeting would bring people together to find a solution to the county’s gang problem.

"I hope every church, every organization, every color of people, every culture can come together as one spirit, one mind, one body and on one accord," she said.

Sotelo said group’s action had been the hope of Gomez’s mother.

Sotelo then told what happened at Gomez’s funeral when funeral directors asked the boy’s mother if she wanted to see him one last time before his burial.

Gomez’s mother, Maria, looked at her son and chastised him as a mother would, Sotelo said.

"She is telling him ‘Now do you understand why I used to say do not get out in the night? And you said to me, ‘don’t worry mama, everything is fine,’ it was not fine,’" Sotelo recalled. "She was preaching."

Then, Sotelo said Gomez’s mother turned away from her son and addressed others at the funeral.

"‘Who is the head of all of this? I want to see your face,’" Sotelo recalled her words. "‘Who invited my son to be part of this? Where are you? Are you a ghost? You invited my kid and now he’s killed and you don’t show me your face? Such a coward you are.’"

Sotelo said the woman then spoke to the mothers in attendance. She told them not to lose hope. She said that maybe her son’s death would move someone to do something about gangs, Sotelo recalled.

Sotelo said he invited Gomez’s mother to Thursday’s meeting.

"She said that she’s not ready yet," Sotelo said.