Rival gang leaders collaborate on a community need: Diapers

July 21, 2020 GMT

ALLENTOWN, Pa. (AP) — Some Latin Kings handled the phones; members of the Bloods and the Crips knocked on doors and made deliveries. Together, they got more than 163,000 diapers into the hands of 1,100 families in the Lehigh Valley as the coronavirus crisis took hold.

Now the gang leaders, who are volunteers at Promise Neighborhoods of the Lehigh Valley, are stocked and ready for a possible second wave of the pandemic, when families might once again need those basics.

“Never, ever do you have three rival gangs working together, with no animosity,” said Pas Simpson, head of Promise’s Zero Youth Violence program. “Can’t say we didn’t have tension from time to time.”

The diapers are a conduit for a larger story: These men who may have been rivals in their active gang life have made commitments to nonviolence and community service, Promise Neighborhoods Executive Director Hasshan Batts explained. One might call them “reformed,” but they retain the identity of the gang that was their community, their family. Giving back to the community is their atonement for their crimes, and it’s part of their effort to change the direction of the gangs.

“How do I change it from the outside?” Jose Rivera, diaper drive coordinator, put it.

Rivera identifies as a Latin King, and he hasn’t missed a day of volunteering at Promise Neighborhoods since he left state prison in August, after serving 14 years for drug possession.

While in prison, he started earning an associate degree in business administration from Lehigh Carbon Community College through the Second Chance Pell program, which offers grants to incarcerated students. He graduated in May.

All the while, he coordinated the diaper drive from start to finish, using the accounting skills he learned in prison to keep a meticulous record of who got what among that long list.

“I was not going to stop that list until everybody got what they needed,” he said Wednesday, a loaded truck parked next to him ready to take diapers into storage.

Now, he has about 39,000 diapers in reserve, which he estimates is enough to get ahead of the curve by about 50 families when the time comes.

“We’re tired of being reactive — we want to be active,” Rivera said. “That’s the way this city has to be right now.”

Like most responses to community needs during an unprecedented pandemic, the first go-around was hectic. Whatever donations came in went out just as quickly, as Rivera worked to keep up with the 20, 40, sometimes 100 calls a day to the hotline Promise Neighborhoods set up.

The idea for the diaper drive came from the community. When the pandemic started locking the region down, leaders of local Bloods and Crips gangs — with whom Promise Neighborhoods has relationships through its Zero Youth Violence program — came to Simpson, the program head, and said they wanted to help.

They started knocking on doors, masked up, to find out what needs people in Allentown had. Diapers kept coming up.

Serving the diaper need took on a violence-prevention lens, Simpson said — children and babies could be the most vulnerable to abuse in families that face mounting stress due to unemployment wreaked by the pandemic.

It also seemed like a largely unmet need, said Rivera, who saw many other nonprofits handling food donations.

“So we found our own special beat,” he said.

In early April, Promise Neighborhoods started calling for donations and set up a hotline for families in need. Diaper donations poured in from mainstays like the United Way, Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley and area hospitals, but also largely from community members responding to the Amazon wish list Promise Neighborhoods set up.

“The community did more than anybody else,” Simpson said. “This was Allentown at its finest.”

“We wound up taking care of the Valley,” he added, as calls came from communities outside Allentown, too.

Simpson doesn’t think this collaboration would have happened if the pandemic hadn’t put a pause on a gang war. It was only a year ago, he pointed out, that 10 people were wounded outside an Allentown nightclub in a gang crossfire.

In the last few years through the Zero Youth Violence program, Promise Neighborhoods has placed an emphasis on strengthening relationships with “credible messengers” in the community as a way of curbing gun violence and changing the gangs from the inside.

Dozens now volunteer with Promise Neighborhoods; half a dozen come daily.

“We’re creating the new gangster,” Simpson said. “A responsible man taking care of their families,” and their communities, which at times need diapers.

The pandemic also helped Rivera. Because the world slowed down, he felt he had time to catch up on learning technological accounting and communications tools. In prison, he learned accounting by hand.

The diaper drive was one way of putting his skills to work. For the second wave, he has a system in place, and he hopes no family who calls will have to wait.

“We’re going to be able to respond to it a lot faster. And if it doesn’t happen,” he said, referring to a second wave, “we already have a plan B and a C.”





Information from: The Morning Call, http://www.mcall.com