October 3, 2022
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Taking it to the streets

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After a career as a top executive at firms such as IBM and Cylink, Fernand Sarrat left the corporate world and decided in mid-2007 to start the Collaborative Communities Foundation to help young people stay out of trouble in Santa Barbara.

“I’m from El Salvador and look what the gangs there have done,” Sarrat said in an interview with the Business Times. “I don’t want to see that here.”

The decision to form the foundation came in the wake of the March 14, 2007, fatal stabbing of 15-year-old Luis Angel Linares, during what police said was a gang brawl in downtown Santa Barbara. Ricardo Juarez, 14, is being tried on murder charges in Santa Barbara County Superior Court as an adult for allegedly stabbing Linares.

The death stunned the South Coast, where business owners such as hotel owner Fess Parker, and economists, including Bill Watkins, UCSB Economic Forecast Project executive director, said the area’s tourism industry could be hurt by such violence. Hositality has even been present during the trial. A witness in the Juarez trial was stabbed Aug. 10, but not fatally wounded, police said.

The Collaborative Communities Foundation officially started in January with what Sarrat said were private donations and the support of other groups and public agencies such as the Patricia Henley Foundation and Santa Barbara Beautiful.

To date, Sarrat said, about 150 teenagers have been sought out by the foundation to participate in its programs. He said the programs include meeting regularly to talk about values, peace and working well with others.

“We work differently than other [gang-prevention] groups,” Serrat said. “We work at the street level … we go to them.”

The young people in the program also help find areas in their communities that can be spruced up with some cleaning or paint. Serrat said he has plans for the teens to help homeowners fix up their homes and yards. The group already has helped repair two properties.

o help him work with the teens, Michael Valdez, Roberta Payán and Juan Carlos Ramirez-Herrada, or “J.C.,” were hired. All three are former gang members and have been in prison, although Payán was a corrections officer, not an inmate.

Ramirez-Herrada, Valdez and Payán are very protective of the young people they are helping. “They are family,” said Valdez as he gestured toward several youths in the program with his heavily tattooed arm.
Valdez and his colleagues said they believe they are getting through to the teens. He said they are leading away from gang life by convincing them it’s not as glamorous as some people would have them think.

The three foundation staff members recently spoke to South Coast news reporters and editors at a meeting at the start of the Juarez stabbing trial. They cautioned against miscasting all gang members as anti-social threats to society.

“They just want respect,” Valdez said of the teens. He admits the situation on the South Coast is not quite as severe as that in areas such as Oxnard, where authorities recently obtained a court injunction to halt gang activities. Valdez, an Oxnard resident, said he has worked with similar groups in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, but for now, “I love my job,” he said. Valdez said he wants to continue working with the Collaborative Communities Foundation even after he starts his own business to help provide jobs for the teens he’s working with now.

He uses his gregarious style to convince them to stay out of prison and respect elders. “I tell them to be yourself, but be positive about it,” Valdez said.

Ramirez-Herrada said he had a lot of time to think about his choices and their consequences when he was serving time. He tells young people about his reflections in a very real and personal manner. “You speak with your heart – PowerPoint won’t cut it with these guys.”

Ramirez-Herrada said he’s attending Santa Barbara City College with the intent of transferring to the University of California, Santa Barbara, to earn a doctorate in Chicano history.

Recently, Serrat and his staff gathered more than a dozen teens at the Franklin Community Center parking lot to survey surrounding neighborhoods to see where repairs and clean ups could help improve the community. As a police car drove by, slowing to observe the youths, Valdez waved at the officers inside the vehicle. He said many police officers look down their noses at the area’s Latino youth.

“It’s your neighborhood,” Payán told some of the teens as they picked up trash around the lot after lunch. Carrying around clipboards with survey sheets and maps, she said she expects the teens to adopt a block to help keep it clean and look better.

Payán spoke with Lorraine Cruz-Carpenter, the executive coordinator of the city’s Looking Good Santa Barbara program. The women planned future efforts to clean up the area with Looking Good Santa Barbara supplying the brooms, shovels and other supplies.

After surveying the neighborhood, Sarrat’s staff handed out dark blue T-shirts emblazoned with the foundation’s acronyn, CCF, in the front and the Spanish word “palabra,” which means “word,” on the back. Sarrat said he’s trying to teach the teens that it is important for them to keep their word.