Former gang member looks ahead to college

Teen finds protection at Boys and Girls Club

By Chris Clark
The Grand Rapids Press

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) — The afternoon Daniel Vargas vowed never again to be afraid remains just as clear for him as if it happened yesterday.

He was 13 and walking home from school with an older brother and two friends when they came upon a group of high school kids. Suddenly, they knew what was coming. They were about to be “jumped.”

Vargas ran into some woods nearby and vowed on that day he never wanted to experience that fear and intimidation again. He joined a gang, South 13, for “protection,” thinking if he hung around other tough guys, he’d be safe.

Instead, Vargas found himself getting into fights and bringing weapons to school. A close friend of his was shot in the head in a drive-by shooting. Everywhere Vargas turned, he worried about clashing with other teens.

“What I thought was protection was just the total opposite,” Vargas, now 18, recalls.

Union High School senior Daniel Vargas found the Boys and Girls Club and left gang life behind.

Around the time he entered high school, an older brother brought Vargas to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Grand Rapids. He found safety there in a way he hadn’t known before.

Gang life wasn’t worth it Vargas quickly decided.

Five years later and now a Union High senior, he’s preparing to graduate in June and recently Vargas accepted the Boys & Girls Clubs’ “Youth of the Year” award. It came with a $1,000 college scholarship.

His old idea of “cool” pales in comparison to his new version, pursuing a mechanical engineering degree at the University of Michigan. He’s hoping for an acceptance letter and realizing that dream may soon become a reality.

What a difference five years can make. Sitting on a hallway bench in the high school that, like gang membership, soon will be part of his past, Vargas recalled the journey that took him from danger on Grand Rapids’ streets to securing a future for himself.

More than anything, he hopes other teens will realize what he did: Gangs are not the answer.

“I see the kids at the Boys & Girls Club and they just want to be cool,” Vargas says. “That’s the same thing I was thinking.”

Vargas wasted no time finding South 13, a gang with a Grand Rapids branch. Spending time with older guys, he thought, would spare him the worry of having to figure out how to fight on his own.

At the Boys & Girls Clubs, he found a place of protection he didn’t know existed. Others would look out for him and he didn’t have to worry about the violence. He could do homework, get somewhere in life, and be encouraged. He continued going a few days a week.

As a gang banger, Vargas saw two options ahead of him: “going to jail or dying.”

“That just got into my head and I decided I don’t want to go through that,” he said. Speaking of his two younger sisters: “I didn’t want to be a disappointment.”

Vargas considers Chris Wilson, a recreation and sports coordinator for the club, a role model and someone who helped him build his life in a positive direction.

Wilson remembers first seeing Vargas. He was “lost” just as many other teens are — lacking any comprehension of what life could be and what long-term consequences he could someday face if he continued running with the wrong crowd.

Wilson speaks to teens like Vargas in an honest, straightforward and matter-of-fact tone. He shares stories of teens who went the other way and ended up in trouble.

“(Daniel) was on the track to becoming a statistic,” Wilson said of Vargas. “He’s made a complete 180, really, with the choices he’s made in life.”

The Boys & Girls Club was a safety net, and he had a chance to stand up and share his story as he accepted the annual award.

Union High School Principal Karl Nelson calls Vargas a “selfless” teen who figured things out in time to find his own path to success.

Vargas’ testimony touched Grand Rapids Police Chief Kevin Belk, who heard him speak and considered the difference of his story when compared to many others on city streets.
“I have absolutely no doubt he’s going to be successful,” Belk said. “He is the one that benefits . In the end, the community wins as well.”


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