Teens graduate from Nashville anti-gang program, alternative to juvenile court

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — It’s graduation season in Middle Tennessee, but Wednesday night wasn’t your typical college students. Instead of academics, these teenagers were honored for their commitment against gang violence in Nashville.

Although you didn’t see the typical cap and robe or a president or director, you could hear every name being called.

“We’re going to be graduating from the GANG and GIFT program,” said Deona Lavender, one of 10 teenage girls to graduate from the program.

GANG, which stands for “Gentleman and not Gangsters”, has been operating for years, with the “Growing in Faith Together” (GIFT) succeeding in partnership with it. Students like Lavender say it’s a great alternative to what she would do with her life.

“Fighting, lots of fighting,” Lavender said. “I’ve always thought that I always have to react to things, but being here has taught me that there will always be things that will try to stop me from getting to bigger things. I have to ignore that.

The programs are another option for high-risk gang-related teens, hoping to show them a different life.

“It feels good to know there are people like me out there,” Lavender said. “I’m glad I took this program. I’m glad I got to experience something that other people may not be able to experience.

Bishop Marcus Campbell, the senior pastor of Mount Carmel Baptist Church, leads the program and says it is easy to fall into a life of violence and explained that many of these teenagers feel like joining a gang is all they have, but thanks to the program they are taught differently, with some even forming a second family.

“Our whole tagline for GANG and GIFT is if we can change your mind, we can change your grind. So to see them handle situations differently, make better decisions about who they want to hang around, start thinking about college or a trade or whatever they can do,” Bishop Campbell said.

The programs link up with the juvenile justice system. At Wednesday night’s ceremony, Judge Shelia Callaway was present. Bishop Campbell says these types of initiatives are needed more than ever as youth crime continues to wreak havoc.

“Between 13 and I might as well say 19 is very important to get them under control before they hit 20, because then a lot of times we lose them. We lose them between the ages of 13 and 20, and we just try to steer them in the right direction and keep them from going down the wrong path,” Bishop Campbell said.

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In order to graduate, each student must continuously attend weekly classes at the church. Programs feature hands-on sessions and include field trips to local colleges, so teens can see what their future could be. A lot of the initiatives are run through donations, if you want to donate you can do so on their website.

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