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Sheriff's Office uses gang prevention grant money to fund martial arts classes

June 15, 2010 at 1:15 a.m.

Victoria Sheriff's Office Lt. Chris Garcia, left, leads  BilliAnn Schmittlein, 12, Erika Garcia, 12, Hannah Guerra , 11 in kicking exercises.

The Victoria County Sheriff's Office held its first martial arts classes as part of a revamped strategy on gang prevention.

A $101,795 state grant the department received in March helps to fund the free, summer-long martial arts camp for incoming sixth-graders and parents.

"We're focusing on belt colors, not gang colors," Lt. Chris Garcia, the class instructor, said.

Garcia has 37 years of martial arts experience and was in charge of a similar program with the Victoria Police Department. That 10-year program attracted hundreds of kids each summer, Garcia said.

"It encourages discipline, flexibility, trust, confidence and builds a strong rapport with officers," he said.

The grant money will also be used to expand the department's Gang Resistance Education and Training program, or G.R.E.A.T. In that program, officers go to fifth- and eighth-grade classrooms to teach students skills that will help them avoid gang activity.

"It's about positive contact. Kids are more apt to come to us because we have a positive bond," Garcia said.

Deputy Kenneth Wells is one of the instructors who travels to 26 area schools as part of the program. He said schools have reported less bullying since the program began in 2008.

"It's also letting other kids identify violent behavior and come forward without being afraid of being called a snitch," Wells said.

The nationwide program has four components: middle and elementary school curricula, a summer program and a families program.

With the first three components already in place, the sheriff's office is using the grant money to fulfill the last one: family.

"The program gets kids together with parents to build stronger families," Wells said.

The department will receive certification training for the family program in August.

Wells said 51 kids so far signed up for the martial arts classes, which began Monday at First United Methodist Church at 407 N. Bridge St.

Students can join anytime before the final class on July 29, which will feature a demonstration and awards ceremony.

Parents interested in signing their children up for the class can call the sheriff's office at 361-212-6279 or sign up at the time of any class.



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