By Chris Echegaray, The Tennessean
The screeching whistle jolts 21 boys out of their pre-dawn sleep. They climb out of their bunks, scramble to fix their beds and head downstairs for physical training at the Tennessee National Guard Armory in Smyrna.
In nearby barracks, 17 female teenagers are also scurrying at the start of the Positive Beginnings life skills camp, held by the YMCA Community Action Project.
The 5 a.m. wake-up is a reminder for Jordan Alexander, 14, of some of his misdeeds. He shouldn't have stolen those GPS devices from vehicles. He'd still be sleeping in his home in the J.C. Napier public housing development, where even the random gunfire doesn't wake him.
"I'm getting used to waking up this early, and I like the food," said Alexander, who was getting into trouble shortly after being recruited in the seventh grade by local Gangster Disciples. "But when we're done, I have to not get into trouble."
Positive Beginnings is a camp for youth whose offenses range from theft and assault to truancy and drug possession - it's an alternative to three to six months in a juvenile detention center. The two-week camp is the only one of its kind in this area that focuses on life skills, gang prevention and nutrition classes interspersed with military training.
Between 75 percent and 85 percent of the kids held in the city's juvenile detention center are gang members or profess some gang affiliation, officials have said. Many of the teens in camp are gang-affiliated, and nearly all were targeted by gangs for recruitment in their schools.
With growing youth and gang violence in Middle Tennessee, advocates have said there is a dearth of prevention programs. During the reporting of The Tennessean's Gangs of Middle Tennessee project, time and again gang experts mentioned the lack of centralized programs.
Nashville has seen gang affiliation swell to 5,000 members, with youth cycling in and out of trouble. Middle Tennessee has experienced its share of gang and youth violence that, some say, can be mitigated by funding more programs like Positive Beginnings.
"Programs like these can curb, and that's the word to use, curb violence and gangs," said Earl Jordan, an anti-violence advocate who works with the Y's program. "I don't think gangs or violence can be completely stopped."
Not a boot camp
Michael Check and Henry Smith, Y-CAP's executive and associate directors, respectively, set up the camp. They get dozens of Davidson County Juvenile Court referrals for their annual program. They are loath to call it a boot camp.
"We're trying to build them up and not break them down," Check said. "This camp would be full if we did it more than once a year. But funding is an issue for many programs."
They start looking at the files and try to whittle participants down to 40 or a few more. It's usually 20 boys and 20 girls, ranging in age from 12 to 17. When they arrive, they are given shorts and a T-shirt.
The National Guard donates bed space, their grounds and military instruction for a camp that costs about $420 per teen. The Y-CAP program pays for the program through fundraising campaigns. The camp graduates its inductees on Thursday.
The rules are clear. The campers cannot leave for two weeks; there are no phone calls home, and the schedule keeps them busy from 5:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. They are given notebooks so they can write home. Parents are encouraged to write, as well.
In the morning, Smith barks out the mantra that camp-goers memorize:
"I believe we will win. Life remains very simple. It provides us with hope and opportunity. If we give up, we automatically lose. Only if we dare to struggle, we dare to win."
Eighty-five percent of the teens in the program don't return to the juvenile court system, Smith said. The key is the yearlong follow-up with the teens, families and probation officers. They get access to family counselors and other social programs.
If any of the teens don't show up for school or probation, Y-CAP staff track them down and find out the reasons. The program also helps former camp attendees in court to get their records expunged.
What the program needs is help finding mentors, because many of its teens don't have positive role models.
During camp, the teens spend time in classrooms, where they are told that if they drift off to sleep, they will have to stand for the remainder of the session. Some heads are already tilting, with many tired from the early-morning drills.
One morning they are listening to Eric Alexander, who runs a gang awareness program for United Neighborhood Health Services. Alexander visits Metro Nashville schools to persuade gang members to use their leadership skills for some other endeavor.
Alexander is making the camp-goers think about personal aspirations and positive characteristics that set them apart from their peers.
"Life is trying to teach you something every day," he told them. "Set a goal; speak your mind. You have to be your own person. Identify your difference. Don't sit in the back of the classroom to follow your friends."
The message resonates with Kyle Hurgen, 16. He said a lack of male role models, discipline and structure in his life had an impact, but he takes responsibility for shoplifting and being unruly. It's what led him to the camp.
In the dining hall, Hurgen mentions two brothers serving sentences and his affiliation to the Crips, a nationally known gang, while he picks at his french fries.
"I've never had anyone give me this kind of discipline and structure," he said. "This is not what I'm used to, since I'm from a different background. I'll be the first to graduate from high school. I joined the Crips because you either join a group or you don't. I'm learning a lot."
Tiffany Mendez went though the camp last year. The 17-year-old Maplewood High School senior stayed out of trouble and had her record expunged.
"I had an epiphany, and I was completely transformed. These programs are necessary. You learn that gang affiliation is not the way to go. You can be pushed to a turning point."