By Howard Hwang, 15, Marshall High School
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I was hesitant to interview Manny Velasquez. I figured a person who deals with teens who have been first-time offenders has to be pretty scary.

Yet as soon as I got to the El Nido Family Center in Pacoima, where Manny works, I felt a lot better. The entrance to the center was filled with decorations. And when I finally met Manny, I was surprised. A short, husky, but well-built man, he was reclining comfortably in his office, surrounded by all sorts of famous music and television posters and collectibles.

I could see right away why he is able to help teens who have gotten in trouble. I felt like he already knew me when he was talking to me. He’s able to make you feel comfortable in seconds, like he knows what you feel about what’s going on in your life, and he can help you through it. At the same time, he’s intimidating, so you listen to him. He has a tough look, like you really can’t mess with him.

Manny, who’s 43, has influenced many teens in 17 years of working for the city’s Community Youth Gang Services. Basically when teens commit their first crimes, the police decide how serious they are. If the teens’ offenses are relatively minor—such as shoplifting, possession of marijuana, or getting in a fight at school—the police may send them to Manny for a couple hours every week for a designated number of weeks. If the teens want to stay out of jail, they have to pass his class.

In the most recent course, 20 out of the starting 24 passed. Manny said, "Boy, when those kids first come in, they are ALWAYS thinking that they are smart, tough and an old fart like me won’t change them at all. When the weeks are over, they go out embarrassed of themselves and quiet. But the good thing is, they now know what they did in the past was wrong, and from that point on, they change their lives around. There are always those hard smart asses in every group that I do. Sadly those are the ones that usually don’t pass and end up in the harsh justice system."

Once in a while, he gets a gratifying call from a past client. "As long as I know they’ve changed their life around because of what I did. Every single one counts."

Manny showed me his thoroughly organized schedule. Week by week, he has a certain agenda that he follows and puts the teens through hours of heated discussions, scary videos and speakers. Part of the class is just talking about what teens are up against. Manny ticked off all the things on his fingers:
• competition for grades/ scholarships
• gangsters at school mad-dogging you
• boring teachers
• teachers who hate you
• standing in line for lunch
• pressure to be in a gang, or else you get beat up
• kids with no parents

‘Why would you smoke pot at school?’

From this friendly path, Manny zooms in on the problem. He wants to make teens realize what they did was wrong, and they have to take responsibility for their actions. "I tell them: If you had the ability to get busted, that tells me you can think and make plans. You’re the knucklehead that put yourself here, not me. I say, ‘Dude, you go to Granada Hills High School. It has 12 cameras and drug-sniffing dogs three times a week. Why would you smoke pot at school?’"

Manny said he has noticed that some parents are too easy on their kids—they let them get away with stuff. "They tell me, ‘Mommy’s gonna bail me out,’ and it scares me, the denial that parents have that their babies would do something wrong."

Manny also lets them know what they’re in for if they keep committing crimes. He explains intimidating legal terms such as "attorney" (that’s a lawyer) and "deposition" (when a lawyer takes a statement from a witness). He explains restitution (when you have to pay money to make up for what you did.) "I tell them, ‘Next time, you’re not coming back here. You’re gonna need to do some time. The judge might slap you with 400 hours and give restitution for $300.’ They say, ‘Oh man, where am I gonna get $300?’ They should have thought of that before they wrote on that wall.’"

Manny’s main purpose is to help teens understand that no matter how smart they think they are or how tough, when it comes to the justice system, they are nothing but little bugs. He has guest speakers—hard-core homeboys who have served time. They talk about prison rapes and "girlfriends." "When young men get locked up, and you haven’t had a girlfriend, there are sexual urges. In prison, only the strong survive. If you look weak, they smell that you’re weak."

Doesn’t the guard watch? "Yeah, but they can’t be everywhere."

He also educates teens about date rape and having respect for your girlfriend. He said he recently talked about the girl who was raped at a ditching party for Birmingham High students. He made the point that she didn’t deserve it, even though she had been drinking. "They started to understand more about healthy relationships."

Manny admitted that he himself committed some crimes back in the day. "Yeah, I used to do everything you can think of. But I never got caught. Yeah, I was cuffed, and even put in the back seat of a police car. But I was a smart homeboy. I carried my report card in my wallet. When authorities would search me and eventually look through my wallet, they would find my report card and see the usual 3.5 GPA. Ha, one time I got a 4.0. But anyways, they would ask me, ‘Why are you associated with these offenders?’ And I would always say I was at the wrong place at the wrong time. And then they would let me go."

Stay out of trouble

He tells teens to follow common sense. Common sense means that you don’t get into fights. You don’t take drugs to school. You don’t steal. And when you have a party, invite the neighbors, keep the noise down, have sober guys working the gate, and tell everyone there’s no beer and no peeing on the neighbors’ lawns. If you’re a tagger, why not do graffiti art work? Find a legal way to get respect.

And with that I was convinced that Manny was one hell of a guy who really cared about his community and teens from all over.