DENVER — LAST year in Denver, there were hundreds of street fights between gangs, dozens of drive-by shootings. Four young people were killed in the gang violence. This year has seen much of the same. But there have been no deaths. Much of the credit goes to the Denver police, which now have a 23-man squad that deals with the more than 1,500 gang members in the city. But some of the credit must also go to a convict-turned-minister, the Rev. Leon Kelly.
Mr. Kelly has established a nonprofit organization called Open Door Youth Gang Alternatives. Open Door tries to show gang members that there is a better way to live, and that education and jobs are within reach of all. He ministers to kids in a pool hall, on a basketball court, or wrestling on a street corner.
``What we try and do is give the kids that are caught up in the gang element a tangible alternative to consider. We try to change their direction from going further into the gang element,'' says Kelly in an interview.
Tomorrow, Kelly is slated to receive this year's Dale Tooley Citizenship Award. The award is given to the person who has had the greatest impact on the citizens of Denver.
Much of Kelly's effort goes into reaching peripheral gang members and younger kids who idolize older gang members. Kelly's office is covered with photos of them. He calls them ``wanna-be's.''
``Those are the little wanna-be's, kids that have never really been out of the inner city, but they want to be `Crips' and `Bloods' [the two major Denver gangs]. So we create different projects or field trips to go on,'' including ski outings. ``A lot of these kids have never been up on skis. And to see these little wanna-be Crips and Bloods up on skis and interacting together, enjoying each other, it makes a difference.''
Kelly's past helps him reach a lot of kids. A Denver native raised in a very religious family, Kelly served three years in a penitentiary on a drug conviction. While in prison he helped organize ``Shape-up,'' an inmate program designed to give wayward youngsters a stark picture of prison life. Those three years behind bars also resulted in a more religious Kelly, and upon release he entered the ministry. ``Since I worked hard for our adversary, I figured I can work twice as hard for the Lord,'' he says.
Open Door also tries working with the families of gang youngsters. But Kelly doesn't blame family problems when a kid joins a gang. ``They are looking for a sense of belonging, money, acceptance, security, a sense of identity, self-esteem, power, and they feel like they can get that within the gang element ... and it can happen to a kid from any sort of family background,'' says Kelly.
For a young man name Kyle, finding Open Door has meant a new life. ``Being involved with Open Door and the reverend has gotten me a job and everything,'' he says. ``It's opened my eyes to more opportunity....''
Former gang member Mickey helps Kelly work with the younger kids. ``I want to see the little guys have a positive support system so they can come up and have something, because I didn't,'' Mickey says. ``I was a banger [gang fighter] at one point, but no more. It just ain't worth it.''
Despite the efforts of Kelly, gang warfare in Denver is potentially more dangerous than ever.
``We're finding a lot more automatic weapons in the hands of the kids, like AK-47s,'' says Denver police officer Anne Montoya. ``And we know that they're not used for target practice or hunting. The supply is increasing, and those arms are meant for fighting.''
Officer Montoya says that Kelly has a good relationship with the authorities and is always first to a bad scene to try and calm things down. He's toeing a fine line:
``He has worked hard to gain their trust,'' says Montoya. ``Sometimes he'll learn about some plans that gangs have - but he doesn't want to violate their trust by coming to us.''
``A lot of kids I deal with see me as a big-brother type,'' says Kelly, ``I let them know that I love them.''