*As published in the New York Daily News, February 2012*
On a recent Tuesday night, a group of about 25 young men took turns playing basketball in a Harlem community center – but the game was as much about keeping out of trouble as about winning.
One player, who goes by “Blue,” used to be in a gang, like most of the youths on the court. But now the 19-year-old is off to Jamestown College, thanks to Operation SNUG, a program that employs streetwise mentors to help gang members escape the violent life.
“I started getting used to chillin’ with (Operation SNUG mentors) and being around a different type of people,” Blue said. “They went to school and did what they had to do, and I wanted that for myself.”
Operation SNUG officials hosted a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Jan. 13 to celebrate the opening of a new space, on 142nd St. and Lenox Ave. The new office has three computers, which can be used to work on resumes, and offers flexible hours for the youngsters.
“It’s a multipurpose office for the kids,” said Karim Chapman, the program’s outreach worker supervisor. “If they have an issue they can run to this office.”
The program — which mirrors a similar one in Chicago — started in January 2011 with a $500,000 grant from the state Division of Criminal Justice Services facilitated by Harlem state Sen. Bill Perkins. The program was allotted a $150,000 extension to keep it going through February. As Operation SNUG officials seek additional money sources — City Council Speaker Christine Quinn’s office recently came through with $167,000 at Councilwoman Inez Dickens’ urging — the program hopes to keep going.
SNUG’s services includes setting up summer jobs for its participants and educational counseling.
The program, which is part of the New York City Mission Society, currently serves about 90 youth.
Blue said he was hanging out in the streets with friends when he was approached by “credible messengers” — outreach workers recognizable by their black, felt jackets that read “Operation SNUG” on the back in red stitching.
“They said they wanted to help us out and show us how to do things different,” he said.
Most of the outreach workers have been in gangs and served prison time. They focus on high-risk teens and young men between 15 and 26 years of age who want to turn their lives around.
Beloved Hammond, an outreach worker known as “Bad News” when he was a gang member, said he has helped both youths afraid of being shot and unwilling to carry out an order to shoot someone.
“If I can get people to stop the war, then I’m doing my job,” Hammond said.