Alberto "Beto" Gonzales believes working one-on-one with youths is the best way to reach them. His work as a mentor and gang prevention-intervention specialist has earned him much recognition, most recently the Martin Luther King Jr. Legacy Award from Creighton University.
Gonzales grew up in the South Omaha barrio he serves today as a Boys and Girls Clubs of the Midlands counselor. He does outreach with truants, many of whom come from dysfunctional homes. He knows their stories well. He grew up in a troubled home himself and acted out through gangs, alcohol and drugs. He skipped school. He only turned things around through faith and caring individuals.
"I was just an angry kid," says Gonzales, who witnessed his father verbally abuse his mother. Betro's internalized turmoil sometimes exploded.
"At 17 I almost went to prison for 30 years for assault and battery with the intent to commit murder. Then I got hooked on some real heavy drugs."
"My mother prayed over me all the time and I think it's her prayers that really helped me get out of this. I just decided to give my life to the Lord. "
When he’d finally had enough he completed his education at South High at 20.
The Chicano Awareness Center changed his life’s course. A social worker there saw potential in him he didn't see in himself. Then he was introduced to a nun, Sister Joyce Englert, who worked as a chemical dependency counselor.
"She heard me out," he says. "I talked to her about my drug addiction, how I couldn't keep a relationship and all kinds of crap going on. What's cool about that is she asked me if I would go talk to kids about the dangers of drugs and alcohol even though she knew I was an abuser. She said, 'I think it's important kids hear your story.' I found myself crying right along with the kids as I shared it.
"She told me I had a passion for this and asked what I thought about becoming a counselor. Well, I've done a lot crazy, dangerous things in my life but the most frightening and hardest thing was to tell the truth that I couldn't read or write that well.”
Sister Joyce didn’t let him make excuses.
“With her help I got a chemical dependency associates degree from Metropolitan Community College, which led me into working in the schools with adolescents dealing with addiction issues, and I loved it, I just loved it."
He also got sober. He has 33 years in recovery now.
Then he responded to a new challenge.
"When the gangs started surfacing I changed my career to working with gang kids," he says. "That's been my passion."
He worked for the center until 2003, when he joined the Boys and Girls Clubs.
Having walked in the shoes of his clients, he commands respect. He uses his story of transformation to inspire.
"I had a faith my mother blessed me with, then I met a woman of faith in Sister Joyce who gave me my direction, and my job now is to give kids faith, to give them hope.”
He says it comes down to being there, whether attending court hearings, visiting probation officers, providing rides, helping out with money or just listening.
“It really takes a lot of consistency in staying on top of them. All that small stuff really means a lot to a kid who's not getting it from the people that are supposed to be doing it for them, like mom and dad.
"Gangs ain't never going to go away. The only thing we can do as a society is to find the monies to hire the people that can do the job of saving one life at a time. That's what Jesus did. He then trained his disciples to go out and share his word, his knowledge, and they saved one life at a time. That's all I've been doing, and I've lost some and I've won some."
His job today doesn’t allow him to work the streets the way he used to with the hardcore kids.
“I’m not out there like I used to be.”
However, kids in his Noble Youth group are court-referred hard cases he gets to open up about the trauma, often abuse, they've endured. Talking about it is where change begins.
In a high burn-out field Gonzales is still at it, he says, because “I love what I do.” It hasn't been easy. His first marriage ended over his job. Then tragedy struck home.
“There was a time in South Omaha when we were losing kids right and left and one of the kids killed was my cousin Rodolfo. It’s painful to see other people suffer but when it’s in your own family it's a different story. Rodolfo was a good kid, I loved him, but he was deep in some stuff. When he got killed I lost it. That was a struggle. I told my employer, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ I took a sabbatical, I just had to get away. I did a lot of meditation and praying and it only made me stronger.”
He’s not wavered since.
“I’ve got my faith and I’ve learned you've got to hand everything over to God, Don't try to handle it yourself because you will crumble.”
Read more of Leo Adam Biga's work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.