SAN ANTONIO — A Bexar County judge is working with a former gang member to help teenagers involved with gangs change their lives.
San Antonio Police officials said the department has arrested over 500 gang members since the beginning of this year. Some of those arrests are teenagers.
It’s a life Ryan Garcia knows all too well.
“I was a documented gang member my freshman year of high school,” Garcia said.
Throughout high school, Garcia was arrested for offenses like assault, burglary and theft.
In 2012, the lifestyle came to a violent head, when he was the victim of a drive-by shooting on the city’s south side, resulting in a serious injury that landed him in the hospital.
“It was another gang that obviously wanted me dead,” he said.
After he recovered, Garcia said he wanted to change his life, but it was the birth of his son that was the true motivation to end the gang lifestyle.
“He’s the best thing that ever happened to me,” he said.
Now, Garcia has volunteered to mentor teens who want to leave the lifestyle that once consumed his life.
It’s a new initiative in the Judge Carlos Quezada’s juvenile court, called Juntos Court.
Juntos, meaning “together” in Spanish, is also an acronym that stands for Juveniles United Navigating Through Obstacles Successfully.
Quezada said the program is unique to each teen who participates, and consists of resources including counseling, education, and workforce training and mentoring.
“It's different for every individual that comes through our program, and it's completely tailored to them,” Quezada said.
The judge added said Court Juntos goes above and beyond traditional probation.
“It's a huge relationship piece and something I keep saying, it's really about conversations,” he said.
Quezada said the only set requirements are counseling, and a willingness to want to leave the gang lifestyle and change their lives.
Quezada said he has a passion for helping troubled teens, especially those caught up in gangs, having lost a friend to gang violence himself. The judge and former assistant district attorney grew up on the southside of San Antonio, and said some of his friends didn’t have the caring family he had.
“I take this role so seriously,” he said. “If I can find that one spark left in them, if I could just get them in that right direction.”
Garcia will help mentor the teens that go through the program, sharing his experiences and hoping to relate to those who have already been through so much.
“If I can help one person then it'll be worth it,” Garcia said.
Quezada has the same hopes for the program.
“Just changing the world, one kid at a time,” he said.
Court Juntos will begin in August.