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Former gang member David Soto has vision for young people in Yakima
Yakima Herald-Republic - 4/3/2022
Apr. 3—David Soto sat at the head of the table in the basement of a church in east Yakima, his fingers fanning the gold-edged pages of the leather-bound book open in front of him.
"It's where you're at today, compared to where you were at yesterday," Soto said after his Bible study group read a verse from the Gospel of Mark. "Rise up out of your old life."
Soto, 46, has risen out of his old life. An ex-gang member, he was in and out of jail for the first half of his life, partying, using drugs and organizing robberies and drive-by shootings. It took accepting God to bring about the change, he said.
Now, in addition to leading Bible study groups, Soto volunteers with In This Together to build positive relationships with young people in the Yakima County Juvenile Justice Center.
Young people and their families are the focus of a number of gang prevention and intervention programs in Yakima. The programs, some of which are led by In This Together, the Love Project Yakima, schools and city partners, include mentorship, educational courses and activities for Yakima children who are at risk of joining or already in gangs.
Stefanie King, a Yakima resident and childhood friend of Soto's, attends the Bible study with him. The two lived in the same neighborhood while growing up. They would fight sometimes, and Soto was always in trouble, King said.
They reconnected after years, and King has since joined the group that meets Mondays at Bethel Church of the Nazarene in east Yakima.
"It was amazing that he changed," she said.
Start in gangs
In the early 1990s, around the age of 15, Soto and his friends started a street gang in Yakima that would branch off to later become Norteño.
"It was a bunch of misfits in town, right?" Soto said. "Nobody wanted anything to do with us."
In the years leading up to starting the gang, Soto was kicked out of Franklin Middle School for fighting. He spent about a week in the sixth grade at Washington Middle School before dropping out. He had been in and out of the juvenile detention center, and he had a son. Soto was also being aggressive toward his mother, who was trying to control his wild behavior, he said.
Soto and his group of friends had been excluded from other street gangs active at that time and wanted some share of the power, Soto said. So, they created their own.
The group partied and countered the other gangs with robberies and drive-by shootings, Soto said. The draw for him was community and control.
"It was more of wanting to become a part of something more than yourself," Soto said. "In numbers, you feel like you're powerful."
Over the next decade of his life, Soto was in and out of jail and prison. He said he's been at almost every prison in Washington.
"Every time I came out of prison, you know, it'd be one big party," Soto said. "I'd do something dumb and I'd end up back (in jail). I didn't last long in the streets."
As the years went on, Soto said he didn't know how to do anything besides go to jail.
"Pretty soon, you adapt so much to the jail, that you don't even know how to function in society," Soto said.
When he would get out, Soto would fall back to the same friends and lifestyle.
"We go somewhere where we're comfortable, right?" Soto said. "Nobody in this world wants to be uncomfortable, so you go to the people that you know. You go to the lifestyle that you already know."
But it eventually got to the point where he was so deep into partying and drugs that his life came to a halt and it felt like there was no more forward movement, Soto said.
Soto's mother gave him a Bible when he was young. He carried it around all those years, opening it and reading it sometimes, but not fully accepting God.
That changed in the years after 1996, when Soto was shot in the head during a robbery. He picked up the gun he was shot with and shot the person back, he said, hitting his buttocks.
The person Soto was with during the robbery turned witness for the state in the case against Soto, and Soto was eventually offered a plea bargain for 20 years.
Soto decided to go to church and talk to God. He asked for seven years. The next day, his lawyer came to him with a new offer: 84 months, or seven years.
When he was released, Soto ran into the person who had turned witness against him.
"I was faced with a decision," Soto said. "Inside my heart, I felt this conviction. It was either destroy him, or forgive him."
He decided to forgive him.
Later, Soto's mother would tell him that he needed to change. She said only God could change him.
"I got on my knees on her living room floor and accepted Jesus as my savior," Soto said. "Everything started changing after that."
Choosing a new path
The final time Soto went to jail, he made a choice.
"The guards asked me, 'Do you want to go into the tank with your homeboys?'" Soto said. "I said 'No, I'm going to change my life for God.'"
He was taken to the opposite tank, a room that held about 20 people who were part of the rival gang, and a fight broke out. One of the men hit the panic button, and the guards came in to remove Soto.
He was taken to a cell with one other person, who was also from a rival gang. Soto entered the cell and asked him if he remembered who he was. He did, Soto said.
"I asked him if he still wanted to kill me," Soto said. "He said 'No man, I don't do that no more. I do this.' And he held up a Bible."
Gangs and young people
Soto said his past influence on kids is a driving force for his volunteer work with In this Together.
"I was actually, in the past, a big influence on young people and steering them the wrong way," Soto said. "I look back at what would happen to them in the future, and I'm sitting there going, 'Man,' you know, 'What was I doing?'"
Many of the kids he recruited or influenced ended up in jail or dead, he said.
Gang members are still influencing and manipulating young people, Soto said, encouraging them to participate in gangs and commit acts of violence.
"A young kid wants to prove himself, so he goes over and does it," Soto said. "In prison, they call gang members — the little young ones — they call them missiles. What do you do with a missile? You aim it, point it at its target and then you push the button."
Kids in Yakima, much like Soto when he was young, look to street gangs for community and validation, Soto said.
"It breaks my heart, man, to see youngsters out there doing that stuff," Soto said. "That was me back in the day."
Intervention and prevention
Young people and their families are the focus of a number of gang prevention and intervention programs in Yakima.
In This Together and the Love Project Yakima partner to support young people who are incarcerated. Soto and other volunteers from the groups make monthly visits to the Yakima County Juvenile Justice Center to build relationships with the kids, get to know them and learn about their interests and skills.
"We just go in and ask them questions about what they like and what they would like to do when they get out," Soto said.
The group typically cooks a meal for the kids to have during the visit, Soto said, and one volunteer, a barber, gives the kids haircuts. The volunteers also share testimonials about their own history and how they changed their lives.
"We're all a bunch of people that want to make a difference in the community. We've been there, we've done that," Soto said. "We want the youth to succeed, and we try to direct them in the right way."
Love Project Yakima founder Chevy Cortez said his organization came out of a place of love and support during a period of serious violence in 2017. Young people are the center of many programs run by the organization.
"I think it's very important that we're influencing these kids in a positive way because the streets and everything else around them is already an influence," Cortez said. "And if these kids have nothing to look forward to, they're going to go to what they know, which is gangs, drugs and all that other stuff."
Love Project Yakima offers other programs, including Sunday afternoon basketball for at-risk youth or kids involved in gangs. It's at Eisenhower High School from 2 to 4 p.m.
"We provide food, mentorship, and then we play basketball and pretty much just talk to them and kind of share our life stories," Cortez said. "We created an atmosphere where these kids can come and just be kids for two hours."
Programs in schools
Love Project Yakima also works with individual students and school groups in the Yakima School District, Cortez said. He said volunteers meet with kids who are struggling in school or who are involved in gangs.
"I'm an ex-gang member myself, so I come from that life with poverty, gang violence and stuff like that," Cortez said. "I just share my stories with them, and then that kind of breaks the ice for them to open up."
The city of Yakima, Yakima School District and ESD 105 also partnered to create a prevention program in schools called the Yakima Leadership Program, City Attorney Sara Watkins said. Each of the four Yakima middle schools — Franklin, Lewis and Clark, Washington and Wilson — have an education advocate to run the curriculum-based program for sixth-graders.
The leadership program is part of the Gang Reduction Intervention Taskforce, or GRIT, a network of partners in Yakima that secures funds and coordinates programs for young people, families and other community members.
The school program was piloted in 2018 and is funded with a three-year grant obtained in 2019. Currently, sixth-graders who attend Yakima Online can't participate in the program.
"The future of the program would likely include Yakima Online, but it wasn't contemplated at the time we did the grant," Watkins said.
Watkins said the curriculum includes relationship building, social media awareness, bullying, harassment, conflict resolution, communication skills, substance use prevention and gang prevention. There's also family involvement and community involvement, she said.
"The education advocates are in the schools working with their students and trying to get them to understand how to make a decision, how to set goals, thinking about their future, creating a sense of resiliency and hope, and giving them information that allows them to make the decision to not join gangs and to not abuse substances," Watkins said.
Education advocates also work to get students involved in after school activities they're interested in, she said.
Students are often recommended for the program by teachers and counselors, and parents or guardians have to agree to let them participate. It takes place during the school day.
Soto's job shortly after getting out of jail the final time was working as an undercover security guard for Fiesta Foods. Many of the people he caught shoplifting were people he knew through gang involvement. Some of them would wait outside his work, trying to intimidate him or telling people entering the store that he was a snitch.
But since he took steps to change his life, Soto said he wasn't afraid of retaliation or violence against him.
"If I could risk my life doing wrong in the past, why wouldn't I be willing to risk my life doing something good?" Soto said.
For Soto, it took accepting God to bring changes in his life. Then he changed the way he dressed, how he worked, who he spent time with.
"If you're not willing to change everything, you're not going to change at all," Soto said. "To be honest with you, it took for me to just walk away."
He now spends his time volunteering with young people to show that change is an option.
He also advocates for community resources that would help people make those changes. He said there needs to be more support for people coming out of jail, including housing and community activities to help with the culture shock. A community center would also be a big asset for young people who are at risk of getting involved in gangs.
"We need things to captivate (young peoples') minds," Soto said. "To try to draw them in, build relationships with them, let them know that we're there for them."
Contact Kate Smith at email@example.com.
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