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Pine Manor Relies on Youth to Change Image


 On a Thursday evening, resident coordinator Shari Clark presents the Gang Awareness Training Education or G.A.T.E. program to about 14 teens and pre-teens at the Pine Manor Community Center. Pine Manor is a community of about 3,400 people in south Fort Myers.

Tonight’s subject is addiction.

“Pretty soon that high goes away so then you have to try something different to get a step higher,” Clark said. “Which means that you are addicted."

G.A.T.E. is one way Pine Manor Community Center members address the neighborhood’s problems with drugs and violence.

About 42 percent of Pine Manor families live under the poverty line and 20 percent use food stamps, according to American Community Survey 5-year Estimates.

At a recent Pine Manor Improvement Association meeting Lee County Sheriff’s Deputy Robert Brown reported 25 crimes in the month of June; three of which were aggravated assaults, four were simple assaults and 10 were burglaries.

But, Clark said crime is going down, with the average report falling between 12 and 20 incidents each month. She said police in the area are seeing fewer young adults commit crimes in Pine Manor.

“In the past it was the younger kids,” she said. “Because, unfortunately, the adults recruit the younger guys because they’ll just go to ‘juvie’ for a day or two and they’ll get out.”

Lee Memorial Trauma Center Injury Prevention Manager Syndi Bultman brought G.A.T.E. to Pine Manor in 2011.

Bultman is also president of the Pine Manor Improvement Association’s board.  Bultman said G.A.T.E. is about spelling out what life in a gang can lead to.

“They teach them to set goals; how to make decisions. To look for their future,” Bultman said. “It gives them upfront what it is like to be in a gang and depending on what your decision is, these are what the consequences are.”

G.A.T.E. is part of a larger program called Teen Hope.

The community center’s former director Trischa Zumbach created Teen Hope in 2009.

When Zumbach started working in Pine Manor in 2006, she says the center had an afterschool program for children and a teen program supported by a one-year grant.

When that grant ended Zumbach says the teens returned to the streets.

“We had one child who went through our after school program and he was getting great grades and he aged out,” Zumbach said. “Within a year, this kid had joined a gang and was actually recruiting out on the street and he got shot and killed on the streets of Pine Manor.”

In Pine Manor, Zumbach saw parents struggling with addiction or working multiple jobs, facing stressors that take focus away from their kids.

It’s a big reason, she said, why kids turn to gangs or have children.

“They want somebody to love and if you have a child. It's that love that you're looking for. They want somewhere to belong,” she said. “They want someone to accept them and they’re not easy kids to accept because they’ve been hurt a lot.”

So, Zumbach started Teen Hope.

Back at the center, TJ Nelson helps Clark as the teen outreach coordinator.

Nelson grew up in Pine Manor. He lived here as a young teen before moving back when he was 22 in 1997.

He says it was a different place then.

“Drugs. Drugs and more drugs. That’s from 13 to 15, that’s all that was out here,” he said.

Nelson said his own children were the reason he started coming to the center. He stresses education while on the job.

“No education, you’re not going anywhere and I mean anywhere. And I was a testament to that. I was a teenage parent, had a scholarship to go play basketball, chose to work instead, take care of the kid. Me and my wife still together since then,” Nelson said. “Son will be 21 in December and I just never regretted it, never looked back. Not personally, but in my professional life I always wish I would have went.”

At his desk, Nelson pulls out a thick pile of papers with names and letters on it. They’re school grades.

“I have all the student ID’s,” he said. “I can go to the Lee County parent link. Check grades. I do that often, too. Just so they’re not pulling any wool over my eyes when I ask them about grades.”

Seven years after she started, Zumbach said she has seen results with Teen Hope.

“They’ve had four kids go to college - three on scholarships. One of them’s on a football scholarship at Concordia University. I think it was last year, one graduated cum laude,” Zumbach said. “We haven’t had any of them fail out of school that are in the Teen Hope program.”

Nelson’s son is the young man with the football scholarship.

This year, Zumbach left for another job. Now, Clark is in charge.

The center is expanding. A kitchen offers a cooking school and a pathway to potential jobs.

Clark is also looking into building a Laundromat that would add jobs. And finally, the lot next door is about to become a community garden.

Topher is a reporter at WGCU News.