Success after gangs

FRESNO -- Alejandro López's face lights up as he talks about his involvement with the Central Valley Sportsman Club.

López, a 20-year-old avid fisherman, describes the annual children's fishing derby the club organizes at Woodward Park in Fresno. He proudly adds that he once won a club award for catching an 11-pound catfish near Mendota.

López seems less comfortable discussing his future.

As he sits in a conference room at the Fresno County Economic Opportunities Commission's Local Conservation Corps office, dressed in his green uniform and an orange work vest, López struggles to talk about his dream college degree or career.

"I don't like thinking about that -- it's scary," he said. "I just want whatever. It doesn't matter. I don't have no specific thing I want to do."

His future is brighter than he admits.

López, who joined the Conservation Corps' California Gang Reduction and Intervention Program in 2007, is one of six corpsmembers nationwide to receive The Corps Network's Corpsmember of the Year Award, a prestigious honor recognizing at-risk youth and young adults who have dramatically turned their lives around.

A former gang member who was incarcerated for two years at California Youth Authority, López has now graduated from the EOC's School of Unlimited Learning charter high school, become a husband and father of a one-year-old daughter, is a first-time homeowner, and is a part-time student at Fresno City College.

López said he was shocked to learn he had been selected to receive the award, which he will receive during a ceremony in Washington, D.C. Feb. 9.

"I didn't think I would get something like this," he said in his shy manner. "I'm not used to this type of thing."

But Marcelino Salazar, program manager for the Local Conservation Corps' Gang Reduction and Intervention Program, said López earned the award.

During an interview at the EOC office, Salazar recalled that when he first met López at the youth prison in Stockton, López was quiet and shy, and lacked social skills and life direction.

"I've seen him to where now he's got goals, he knows where he's headed, and where he wants to go," Salazar said. "All those skills that he didn't have when he was there, he has now. Or he's working on them -- he's still working on them."

López is currently taking an English course and a computer class through Fresno City College. He is reluctant to declare that he will achieve his associate degree, or pursue a bachelors.

"If I believe I can do it, I'll go for it," he said.

When asked if he believes he can do it, he responded with hesitation.

"Yeah?" he said. "Sometimes it's easy and sometimes it hard."

And though he has made giant changes in his life, López seems uncomfortable thinking about making another change: Eventually leaving the EOC, where he's on the irrigation work crew and receives the loyal support of EOC staff.

"I'm trying to see if I can stay as long as I can," he said. He added, "I'm scared to go somewhere else."

Salazar said the Conservation Corps helps young adults transition from prison into the outside world. He said many corpsmembers get comfortable in their positions at EOC, and dread moving on.

"He knows what to do, he knows the job," Salazar said. "If he goes somewhere else, he has to learn something new, and will have to prove himself all over. I think he's afraid to fail."

Salazar is confident that López will continue making positive choices on whatever path he chooses.

"He has no desire to go back out to gangs -- you could see that he doesn't want to go back to that lifestyle," Salazar said. "You can see he doesn't want to go back to jail. He wants to be home with his family, providing for them."

López is sure of a few goals he hopes to achieve.

He knows that the EOC program and staff helped him turn his life around, and now he wants to return to the youth prison and speak to other young inmates.

"I would tell them about the experience I had when I was there and when I got out," López said.

"It's not so bad," he said of the transition out of prison. "If I could do it, anybody can."

He's also sure of his long-time dream: Customizing old cars for himself, and maybe for customers, too.

"That's my goal -- to get an old car," he said. "I'm thinking about a truck -- a '71 Chevy or a '60-something. That and a lowrider car, too. That's been my dream since I was small."