Mary Beth Brennan at the East Dallas YMCA knows the shocking truth about some of our neighborhood youth.

She knows the gangs, their boundaries and what they do. She knows about the high school dropouts and teen pregnancy. And she knows about the poverty.

Of course, it’s her job to know this.

Brennan is the teen program director for the East Dallas YMCA, and her job is to help students at J.L. Long and Woodrow Wilson take the right path in life.

“That’s an awkward age,” Brennan says. “You’re not old enough to drive. You’re not old enough to have a job. But you’re old enough to get really bored.”

The YMCA offers a middle school program called Expressions, which is designed to keep students off the streets, out of trouble and away from gangs.

Brennan and SMU volunteers play games and talk with the teenagers Mondays and Wednesdays from 3:30-5 p.m. Brennan also arranges for supervision so the teenagers can work out in the weight room Tuesday and Thursdays. About 15 teenagers show up on a regular basis for the free program.

“It’s a hard age group, going through it and dealing with it,” Brennan says.

The high school club, which doesn’t have a name, offers more services, including college and SAT preparation, tutoring, college tours, community service projects and recreation.

“The mentality behind gangs is they (kids) need a place to belong,” Brennan says. “We give them that here. The only thing you have to do here to fit in is stay out of trouble and show up.

“The most important thing you can do is give them a call and check up on them.”

The high school students meet Wednesdays at 6:30 p.m., and up to 20 teenagers usually show up. They lounge in chairs and talk about activities they are planning, such as a lock-in, planting trees in the community or touring a college.

Victor Galvan and Jose Rodriguez have participated in the program for about three years. Rodriguez says without the program, he probably would have joined a gang; Galvan says he may have dropped out of school.

“It’s fun,” Rodriguez says. “It keeps us out of trouble on the weekends. You’re together with your friends.”

Brennan says one of her goals is to help the students develop and take steps to achieve their goals.

“Everyone always expects the worst from this age group,” Brennan says. “But if you ask them, they’ll do it. If you expect good things, you’ll get them.”

The programs were funded by a grant given to the Metropolitan YMCA. But the grant ran out and funding for the programs is now dependent on the local neighborhood, says Nora Tomlin, director of the East Dallas YMCA.

The programs cost about $25,000 a year, Tomlin says. So far $14,000 has been raised this year, but $11,000 is still needed, as well as computers, typewriters and education materials, Tomlin says.

“We are part of the community,” Tomlin says. “And we service children in the community. We must do everything possible to help these kids be successful.”

To get involved or to make a donation call the YMCA at 824-8139.

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