YouthZone: Gangs and sports

1 youthzone 1 lauwen burton
Footballer Lauwen Burton
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In September of this year, a father-of-seven received some disturbing news from someone at his son’s school. When he reached the compound, the father realised that his son had been stabbed in the back.

Despite rumours of gang rivalry, “the root cause of the incident remains unknown”, according to the father who was left with medical bills that exceeded $1,200. As he anticipated giving the bills to the parents of his son’s nemesis, the father left the school with them in his hand.

“There was no way they could foot those bills because they were poor,” he said, “and to make matters worse, the situation at school has not improved since the incident.”

Recently, a threatening post and shocking video surfaced on social media. Caught between a cutlass wielding guy and another youth was his son, who appeared to be parting a violent brawl. “The fact that the perpetrators are juveniles has made it difficult to get justice,” the father told YouthZone. “I had to curtail my son’s social events and implement security measures to keep my son on the straight and narrow.” But the new restrictive plans have angered the 16-year-old whose life has changed drastically.

As proposals to stamp out gangs and youth violence dominate the news, more training on gang intelligence for lawmen and youth inclusion should also be welcomed. Several young people explained that they are constantly targeted by police because they were involved in past gang-related incidents. The attitude of some youngsters has also worsened the situation. Consequently, the relationship between many youth and police officers has soured over the years.

“It is because they are unfamiliar with the constitution why they are sometimes taken advantage of and why many youths give away their rights,” 22-year-old Andrew Christian said. He encouraged young people to delve into the Antigua and Barbuda Constitution and learn more about their rights, especially since constitutional awareness empowers youth.

The engineering student also pointed out that the need for acceptance and validation is a primary trigger for the formation of gangs. “Home is supposed to be where the heart is, but the reality is that many young people do not fit in at home,” he stated. Although it may sound skewed to some people, Andrew claimed that “many youths get more love and acceptance on the streets than in their homes”.

Andrew also accused youth of being naïve to the “brainwashing effect” of dancehall music and parents of furnishing their children with material things too easily. When they are unable to do so, children tend to seek other alternatives. “There is nothing wrong with making young people uncomfortable at times. It is this unease that provides growth and makes them understand that it is normal not to always get what they want,” he maintained. Once in conflict with local gangs, Andrew recommended youth involvement in sports to combat deviant behaviours.

And, both Wendoll and Lauwen Burton endorsed Andrew’s recommendation. The siblings grew up in a sporting environment where their parents Laukland and Robinette Burton were cricket and netball players. Understanding the pivotal role of sports in physical and emotional well-being, the parents informed YouthZone that they deliberately invested in sports from an early age to help keep their children “away from negative influences such as gangs, drugs and other illegal activities”.

Recent college graduate 19-year-old Wendoll believes that sports in general are not only “an easy way to meet new people and improve your cognitive function”, but they also motivate young people to do well and unite communities which give youth recognition. However, Wendoll admitted that despite familial and community support, his “greatest fear” is not reaching his fullest potential. Nevertheless, he hopes that his dream of becoming a civil engineer will one day materialise.

Both Wendoll and Lauwen pointed out that sports can alleviate stress too since it provides a coping mechanism or “an escape from your mind.” During exercise, “the ‘happy hormones’ endorphins are released, ridding you of stress”, Lauwen indicated. The aspiring medical doctor also noted that sports have overall health benefits which can translate into quality work and better academic performance.

“Participating in sports like netball, cricket and football also develops social skills, like problem-solving and teamwork. A good athlete must also master self-control and discipline. All of these skills benefit us daily,” Lauwen added. “Peer pressure is very common amongst teens; however, sports groups are better pastimes than gangs. Sports elevates your mind and gives you a good reputation, whereas gangs give you a terrible reputation and constantly break you down,” the 16-year-old emphasised.

There is now a worldwide movement “to build on the power of sports as a tool for peace,” according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The organisation launched a global youth crime prevention initiative which aims “to promote sports and related activities to prevent crime and effectively build resilience of at-risk youth.”

Cricketer Jaylen D Francis can attest to the power of sports which “kept him out of trouble, particularly “gang violence, crime and drugs. Instead of being on the streets,” Jaylen said, “I would be participating in sports [cricket] and having fun with the friends I play with.” He warned all youth to occupy their free time constructively since gangs “would end up getting you or someone else hurt or even worse, killed”.

The Gunthorpes resident who is a member of All Saints (Pythons) Cricket Club recently played for the Keyworth Cricket Club in England. He accumulated 476 runs with an average of 59.5 and four winning top scores of 99, 90, 76 and 54 not out. Jaylen grabbed 24 wickets, too, with an average of 19.42 and economy rate of 4.25. At the end of the season, he was awarded Batsman of the Year.

The 20-year-old youth also participated in the Commonwealth T20 Cup with fellow Antiguans Essan Warner and Glenton Williams who travelled to England with him. “We played for Nottinghamshire and won the competition,” he told YouthZone.

Recognising that academics complements sports, Jaylen plans to study marketing and management in England where he will return to play cricket. He has already been accepted by Loughborough University and will begin his studies in September 2023.

Not downplaying the significance of academics, the father whose son was stabbed mentioned that not every child is book-smart; hence the need to “put that energy and muscle [brain] into other avenues such as playing sports and learning a skill or two”. He believes it is key to producing good citizens and continues to plunge his son into diving, sailing and welding.

Counsellor Farrell Gil Mercedes insisted that “we have to start very early to engage our young people. We have to be honest when we identify certain traits and address them early, rather than wait until it is too late”. Some parents also need to swallow their pride and seek help for youth with psychological and behavioural challenges.

Their behaviours can disrupt and create unease in classrooms, workplaces, and the virtual world. And as research has shown, these youth may also be ostracised and susceptible to joining gangs.

“Nothing is wrong with providing the right medication to assist young people. Parents need to step up and seek help immediately,” Mercedes urged. And these situations require a holistic effort by the family and other cornerstone institutions like the schools and churches. The counsellor acknowledged that “these issues should not be dealt with in isolation. We have to come together to address them and let parents and communities know how they can engage youth positively and what options are available”.

As reformed gangster Armando Williams pointed out, genuine transformations in our youth hinge on continuous education and support programmes with viable resources, alternatives, and opportunities. Clear policies or structural guidelines for the development of sports, along with increased scholarships, should also be prioritised to make this field more attractive and meaningful for youth.

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