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Contigo, Families Find Strength and Fight Gangs

The neighborhood-based program targets at-risk kids in the Marinovich Park neighborhood.

A unique gang prevention and intervention program has targeted a troubled Watsonville neighborhood for more than a year to keep kids out gangs by helping the entire family.

Contigo, which means "together" in Spanish, launched a year ago in the  neighborhood, west of downtown off Rodriguez Street, thanks to grant funding through CalGRIP.

Thirty students from 29 families have taken part in the program in its first year, and 24 are currently enrolled. The goal is to serve 40 families before funding for the program ends in December.

“The Contigo program strives to prevent the loss of youth to gang life and violence," explained Anna Espinoza, Parks and Community Services Department director, mentioning the gang slaying of Jesse Lopez, 14-year-old Watsonville High freshman, that resulted in public outcry in December.

Described as a "wrap-around" program, Contigo works with kids and their parents to build better family relationships and fill needs, like counseling or food.

"The Contigo program is a most unique gang prevention and intervention program," Espinoza said.

The Parks and Community Services Department made a presentation about Contigo before the Watsonville City Council on Tuesday evening.

The program is based at Marinovich Park. The neighborhood was chosen because the residents there face many challenges due to socioeconomic factors and there are existing resources in the community that the Parks and Community Services Department could take advantage of.

The Parks staff painted a picture of a troubled neighborhood:  

  • The poverty rate in the neighborhood was 26 percent, compared to 19 percent for the city.
  • The median income per household was $32,583. There, far more people rent their homes.
  • The average household size was 16 percent higher than the rest of Watsonville and 82 percent higher than the city of Santa Cruz.
  • The year the program started, 36 percent of gang crime in the city happened within one-third of a mile of Marinovich Park.
  • The schools in the area are among the lowest API scores in the school district and have a high truancy rate.

Families find the program via referrals from other agencies, like the school district, but also from other families already taking part in Contigo. They must have a student in the fourth or fifth grade to qualify.

Participation is voluntary, but if families chose to join they have to commit to taking part in all aspects of the program.

The program includes an after school program that offers a healthy snack, tutoring help and guest speakers. Parents take part in workshops about making good choices, health and wellness, and personal development. There also are family bonding activities so they can spend quality time together.

A family case manager pulls all of these aspects together to help the family develop goals and connects them to family resources.

Tomas Rodriguez, a fifth-grade teacher at Landmark Elementary School, who has a student in the program said the he has seen an improvement in the student's academic performance, such as finishing homework.

“The program really compliments what’s happening in the classroom," Rodriguez said.

Dora Gonzalez, whose family has been a part of the program for a year, said in Spanish during the city council meeting, that the staff has helped her when she's had problems with her family. Communication has improved and she feels stronger as a mother.

"My daughters have learned to resolve their own problems," Gonzalez said. "... Without this group, my children would not have activities after school."

A video featuring some of the kids involved in Contigo gave a snapshot of what the youth appreciate about the program

  • Brianna Espinoza, a fifth grader, said she likes the reading time, assistance with her homework and the field trips.
  • Giovani, a sixth grader, said he's getting less detentions since he joined the program.
  • Ashley and Saria, two a fifth graders, both said the program helps them with math and their grades have improved.

Preliminary data shows students involved in Contigo have fewer unexcused absences, fewer tardies and less suspension days, according to Parks staff.

"I think it's such a great investment," City Council Member Oscar Rios said.

Contigo has a budget of $738,618 for two years, half of which is grant-funded. Espinoza said her department would try to maintain some aspects of Contigo when the funding runs out at the end of the year. They're also looking for new funding sources, staff said.

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