Four young Danville residents stepped up to the podium one-by-one to mark their graduation from a nine-week job program targeting gang associates and other at-risk youth for intervention.

But beyond placing youth in temporary jobs, Project Imagine has loftier, abstract goals that nevertheless could affect the city.

The challenge, youth and gang violence prevention coordinator Robert David said, stems from participants’ expectations for themselves. Many young people in the city are not held accountable or given proper guidance, which can lead them down a violent path, David said. Giving them temporary jobs — in addition to the money they earn — helps them learn to be responsible and imagine more for their futures, as the initiative’s name would imply.

But the learning curve is steep, David admitted; many do not show up to work on time or work full days. That, he said, was to be expected; it is secondary to the program’s main goal: engaging young, at-risk adults and connecting them to resources and support for their futures.

“The work program gets them in so we can contact them and build relationships,” David said. “Those are the tangibles you can’t really put on paper.”

By giving the program’s participants jobs, David said, their standards raise. That stair-stepping approach is a key step in incrementally increasing participants expectations for themselves — hopefully leading to the realization there is more to life than the oft-dismal futures some imagine for themselves. By building rapport with them, David can refer and direct them to other services they may need like, counseling or help finding housing.

Project Imagine’s second session began in April with five participants. Of that original five, one voluntarily removed himself from the program, and four graduated Friday. The first class of the program began their work with various agencies like Danville Parks and Recreation in October. But the second class was given other work, including maintenance jobs around the area and one at an auto shop.

Danville City Manager Ken Larking said the initiative arose naturally from the City Council’s priorities. The City Council concluded enforcement was not the only effective way to curb gang activity. So they decided to take a prophylactic approach and make an effort to prevent gang violence before it happened — a tactic mirrored by the police department — and hired David, who put the program in place.

“It could not just be about suppression [of gang crime],” Larking told the graduates. “We want to just continue our efforts in prevention. ... We want everybody to be as successful as they can be.”

Graduate Darian Mays, 19, said he enrolled in the program close to his birthday after his probation officer told him about it. It was like a gift. For the duration, he worked in maintenance for a local community, cleaning up apartments to be in compliance with state guidelines, he said.

“It was a good program,” he said. “It was out of my league at first.”

Now, Mays said he wants to go to study to become a social worker. He starts back to school in August.

Both David and Larking congratulated the graduates on their achievements, and brought the larger point starkly home to them during the ceremony.

“None of these guys are lying in the street, dead, and none of them put somebody in the street, dead,” David said, looking out at the graduates. “You showed you want a better life and you’re still trying ... we are going to keep working with you.”

Whitlow writes for the Register & Bee. Contact him at (434) 791-7983.

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Whitlow writes for the Register & Bee. Contact him at (434) 791-7983.

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