Karina Navas, left, serves as program director for Catholic Charities’ Strong Families Initiative, a new gang prevention program. (CS photo by Jaclyn Lippelmann)
Karina Navas, left, serves as program director for Catholic Charities’ Strong Families Initiative, a new gang prevention program. (CS photo by Jaclyn Lippelmann)

We wouldn’t be able to help nearly as many people as we do at Catholic Charities without the strong partnerships we have with local governments. The homeless shelters we operate are a great example. We provide 1,300 beds every night of the year, and that program is funded by government subsidies. We’re taking care of the homeless with the help of the District of Columbia government.

We love it when one of our local governments approaches us for help with a program that serves our community, and that’s exactly what happened in the last budget cycle in Montgomery County. Government leaders asked if we would be interested in partnering on a program to help with young people who are coming to our country and becoming involved with gangs.

This is a serious situation in our community. Montgomery County police recently reported that gang-related crime increased 67 percent through the first six months of 2018. Can you imagine having gangs trying to essentially take your son or daughter away from you and bring them into a unit that is not always following the law or living the kinds of values you believe in?

Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett saw a need for providing alternatives to these young people who otherwise might not be able to find a healthy social and moral environment. The program is called the Strong Families Initiative, and we are thrilled to start in four parishes: St. Camillus and St. Andrew’s in Silver Spring, St. Catherine Laboure in Wheaton and St. Martin’s in Gaithersburg. These parishes are in areas where gangs are known to be and have grown to the point where young people are frightened to walk down the street or go to school because of their activities.

The goal is to use the resources of each parish to form vibrant youth groups that will provide social, cultural and recreational activities for young people. In other words, a social group away from the gang-related activity that is around them.

There are no easy answers, but we are hopeful that we can make a difference. County Executive Leggett is wise to look at a parish teen or youth group as a wonderful place to provide the kind of love, support and care young people need and deserve.

I say that in part based on my own extensive experience working with youth ministry, both in my parish assignments as well as for the archdiocese for more than 11 years. I have seen firsthand how much good can come out of a vibrant parish youth group, and I have fond memories of active programs that allowed young people to feel good about themselves, their friends and their faith.

When the right atmosphere is created, a youth program can grow very quickly. Word gets around as young people find joy and comfort in being part of a bigger group anchored in the values of their faith and their families. They aren’t looked down upon because they are involved in the church; rather, they find strength because of it.

This is a brand new program, and I am eager to see how it goes. It is part of the Montgomery County budget for this year, and I hope it will remain so for many more years. Let’s make a real difference for our young people, whether their families are longtime residents of the area or recent arrivals. Let’s welcome them and offer them a safe, nurturing environment that is fun, faith-filled and supportive in allowing them to be all God calls them to be.

I also want to say a word of thanks to the District of Columbia, Montgomery County, Prince George’s County and the counties of Southern Maryland for partnering with us and allowing us to work side by side in our community. Together, we can continue to do great things!