Columns, Op-Eds, & Interviews Juvenile Justice

Nobody Checked on Us

A view of Young Street, where Sergio Coronel grew up. Photo by Sergio Coronel.
WLA Guest
Written by WLA Guest

By Sergio Coronel

I was released from the old Fresno Juvenile Hall when I was thirteen. I had no reentry plan or support for coming back to my varrio, a neighborhood that needed more programs and care for youth. There were two churches in the varrio, but they never helped us out. The members would stare at us as we walked by, and I always felt judged. So, I went back to the only social group where I felt protected, respected, seen, heard, loved, and like I belonged to something: the gang. I left my home and went back out into the streets. I went to visit my best homeboys. They were half-brothers who did not have a dad, and whose mom was an old-school gang member. 

For months, I thought their mother spoke another language. That is what my twelve-year-old homeboy, the youngest of the two brothers, would tell me until I found out his mom was actually high on drugs. Their house, the only house in the neighborhood without any electricity, was always dark at night. Their home had a cockroach and rat infestation issue, they used the neighbor’s water hose to fill buckets to shower, and gang rivals almost burned the house down. They only ate noodles and some food I brought, and their garbage bags were buried in the backyard. There were times when their mother was taken to county jail, and the older brother would take care of his little brother. They both had been taken out of elementary school at a young age and had not returned.

I was the only one in school until I was arrested at my junior high at age 14. I did not attend the school discipline meeting, but my mother later told me I was expelled. I  did not know what that meant, but my mother said school administrators told her I would not change. It made three of us who were not in school. I transitioned to homeschooling, but struggled to do my schoolwork at home, and eventually returned to high school in my late teenage years. It only lasted a week before I was suspended again. After two months of waiting for a decision from the school, I was expelled for the second time.

School officials labeled me a sophisticated gang member. I was far from that. Youth impacted by gangs in the juvenile justice system lack the sophistication, organizational structure, and gang politics compared to gangs in adult institutions. The perception of youth organizing crime is exaggerated — parents can’t even get their kids to organize their bedrooms.

My friends and I had a lot of hate inside due to our upbringing. Sometimes, that anger led to conflict with other youth with similar traumas. But even though we were in a gang, we were not out constantly committing crimes. The majority of our time was spent just hanging out. One day, several of us were sitting in front of my homeboys’ front porch when my youngest homie began to cry and yell that he was tired of eating noodles every day and wanted something better. We all put our heads down and cried with him. 

In my late adolescence, I returned to the juvenile system, but this time to the new Fresno Juvenile Hall with my cousin and my youngest homeboy. I remember a correctional officer letting me know that my homie ripped his mattress apart and tagged his name in the room. Only I understood the anger and desperation he felt inside. Before our court hearing, we were all placed in a room together. I told my cousin and homie I hoped we would get out. My homie did not want to leave the juvenile facility because they fed him breakfast, lunch, and dinner. He gained weight while inside and continued his behavior to stay incarcerated. 

When my homie was released, I helped him return to school. After a few months, he shared that he did not want to go to school anymore because he had a hard time. He and his older brother could not read or write. He never went back, and nobody checked on him, or us. I never saw his probation officer check on him, nor do I remember any welfare checks from police departments, or schools, or child protective services. During my adolescence, I tried to get church members involved with them, and also contacted a local nonprofit to help me, but nobody ever came.

Instead, I was always getting stopped by police officers as a kid. They would tell me to stand so they could take a picture of my clothing to document me as a gang member. Our lives were chaos and gang violence. Being part of a gang made us feel like we belonged. The only people checking on us in our neighborhood were other individuals impacted by gangs.

The empty lot where the house once stood. Photo by Sergio Coronel.

I recognize now that many people in various professions failed us. The most elementary and fundamental check-in from the school or community could have prevented my best friends from falling victim to dangerous drugs, gang violence, and homelessness. Their house became a hot spot for drugs, caught on fire, and was eventually torn down.

During my graduate program at Fresno State University, I created YoungSTers for Change — a nonprofit where I mentor youth who experienced the same challenges I encountered. I named it YoungSTers to pay tribute to the street where we grew up, Young Street. When working with at-future youth* across juvenile systems in California, I see the pain in their eyes and always remind them that change is a process and possible. Gang-impacted youth are dealing with the effects of childhood and community trauma. When social institutions in the community fail youth, gangs are there to fill in the void. It is crucial to listen and try to understand the stories of youth impacted by gangs to prevent harsh labeling and punishments in communities, schools, courts, and juvenile systems. I know firsthand that these approaches do more harm than they do good.

*I came up with this term to replace the problematic label of “at-risk” youth.


Sergio Coronel is the founder of the organization YoungSTers for Change, where he runs a credible messenger mentorship program for at-future youth in the Central Valley. He is also a gang expert and a member of the Juvenile Justice Coordinating Council (JJCC) at the Fresno Juvenile Justice Campus.


20 Comments

  • This article is a true eye opener. We as professionals in different entities need to do better for kids. A simple check in can make a difference. Sergio’s story is one of many. He now uses his voice to bring awareness and inspire others to continue to do what’s right for children. He has been able to help youth and families in my community for the past 2 years. His work has impacted about 35 children who once felt misunderstood and marginalized . He has broken down stereotypes, assumptions, and has brought in proper research based interventions to help youth.

  • Thanks for caring and understanding our lost youth – without someone there to lead them the possibility of ending up on the streets homeless is real. Everyday in Fresno there’s a new face in the population of the forgotten, and their loss of hope of any change because nobody seems to be working on how it could or can be prevented. Thanks, I understand because my brother in his younger years was involved with gangs. He never had the opportunity to have a mentor, so again “Thanks, for making the effort to make a difference in our youth.”
    B. Walton

  • Thank you Mr Corinel,for all you are doing for the young people, I am a teacher helper at a local school in Fresno I see so many kids that need help in so many ways. Mainly Education can’t read and hardly write thair names with 26- 28 kids in a class teachers, can only do so much with out help from parents and the district. My heart go out to the kids that are struggling to learn and have no one to help them on thair journey. Please keep doing what you do to help as many kids as you can.

  • I see everything you see in this article. Very nice piece of writing Sergio. I didnt grow up in gangs..I was in the gang of school kids who just hanged out at the basketball courts and ran around all day there until I went home from school. I had a lot of friends in that group in high school and middle school. A lot of them I dont know what happened to them. Except I know some work now have families. But I never felt hungry and alone but in the streets during that time in a rural enviroment it is tough. There’s no Mcds. That is tough my friend. I think there are more kids that have EBT now and are being helped thanks to your experiences and what you have been through. I dont know about the gangs. I see more schools trying but how are they impacting I dont know. I hope there not labeling kids because they just need to be herd too and respected as well. Now matter where they come from. I hope ur well . Youngsters for change still going on?

  • Wow. Such a profound article. Thank you for writing it and for sharing your experiences. It sure says a lot about society when it fails its own youth, while talking about “family values” and being “pro-life,” but then not doing anything to help our youth. Actions speak louder than words. Thank you for your actions and making a difference in the lives of others who are struggling with the same issues. And Congratulations on going back to school and onto college! Truly remarkable all around. Thanks for all you do to make a difference. (I work with attorneys who represent “at-future” youth all over California.)

  • Sergio,

    Please continue doing this very important work that you do for these young people! They, and we need you!

  • This was such an amazing piece! Thank you for being vulnerable about your own experience, showing our youth that they are not alone and recognizing that they do have a future. I remember having a conversation with you, where you mentioned the issues around the term “at-risk” but to read it, is truly inspiring. Hopefully, this encourages others, who work directly with “at-future” youth, to better understand the negative effects of harsh labeling & punishment.

  • This was such an amazing piece! Thank you for being vulnerable about your own experience, showing our youth that they are not alone and recognizing that they do have a future. I remember having a conversation with you, where you mentioned the issues around the term “at-risk” but to read it, is truly inspiring. Hopefully, this encourages others, who work directly with “at-future” youth, to understand the negative effects of harsh labeling & punishment.

  • Thanks for sharing this article. The things you have spoken are so true. I personally want to thank you for the positive impact you have made in my grandson’s life.

  • Such an incredibly powerful article! I have worked closely with Sergio for the past 4+ years and have seen the impact his person-centered approach has on his work with young people. Grateful that folks like him exist and honored to call him a partner in this work!

  • Sergio, thank you very much for sharing your perspective from your lived experience. As a colleague, I acknowledge and appreciate your efforts. Our community’s youth are in need of your services. You appreciate the importance of fundamental human kindness, which is absent from various systems that impact our young people. I stand with you in solidarity to offer alternatives to incarceration and change the narrative. Amazing article!!!

  • Sergio,

    You are able to tell a story from a lens that most people didn’t know existed. Amazing work my friend. I know you will have a lasting impact on today’s youth with your experiences!

  • Thank you for continuing to share your story, Sergio. It is so important to hear from individuals like yourself to help our community better understand young people who become involved in gangs. It’s entirely preventable and we must all do our part. Thank you again for all you do!

  • Great article Sergio. I hope more people will see and read it. It is an eye opener. I hope you continue to help our youth and that your program’s outreach can grow!

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