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Anti-gang meetings continue in Sunnyside

"How good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity," reads the mural on the church wall.

A standing-room only crowd of about 100 people met this past Friday night at that church - Cornerstone Assembly of God in Sunnyside - for just that purpose as part of a Sunnyside gang reduction initiative.

Deputy Police Chief Phil Schenck told the packed house that the meeting's purpose was all about putting together an action plan for tackling a gang violence issue that he said has worsened.

Schenck said one goal of Friday's meeting was to find 20 or so people representing various agencies to form a task force to come up with an action plan against gangs.

To that end, a general consensus was to meet each week for the next month or two to iron out a strategy.

The first meeting of the task force, which is open to the public, is today, Monday, at 6:30 p.m. at Cornerstone Assembly of God Church in Sunnyside.

Schenck wanted ideas Friday night and he got plenty.

Suggestions included renewing Sunnyside's parks and recreation program, educating the community, changing child labor laws so that younger children can work in the fields, after school programs, youth sports, training parents and instituting a curfew.

There were complaints directed at - and answered by - police, but for the most part Friday's meeting was harmonious and at times filled with laughter.

Several agencies were represented at Friday's meeting. One of them was Yakima County Sheriff Ken Irwin.

He called on the community to volunteer. Fighting gangs and putting plans into action is going to require people to do more than work, go home for dinner and watch TV.

That was echoed by Sunnyside Mayor Paul Garcia.

He says there are plenty of children who want to participate in AAU sports, but there aren't enough coaches. Volunteers, Garcia says, are needed.

Bob Sarmiento said if there are enough volunteers on the task force then maybe Sunnyside's Promise, which hosted Friday's meeting, could do without the $3,000 a month it is proposing for administrative wages.

Nate Bridges is the chair of Sunnyside's Promise, which will continue to serve as host during the upcoming task force meetings.

Bridges said Sunnyside's Promise has a pledge of support from the Sunnyside School District.

Previously the school district, city and Sunnyside Community Hospital had put $45,000 up for an action plan against gangs.

The three entities are giving Sunnyside's Promise first shot at the funds, but have indicated they may look elsewhere if Sunnyside's Promise does not deliver a plan that meets their approval.

Bridges confirmed that Sunnyside's Promise will take the plan that eventually comes from the newly-formed task force and present it to the hospital, city and school district for review.

Perhaps the best plan might be the simplest, most direct one.

Esmeralda Deleon, a Granger High School sophomore, told the crowd she used to be in a gang.

The "plan" that got her out of gangs came down to four letters.

"When people started showing me love I got out," the 16-year-old said tearfully.

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