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During Violence Intervention Prevention leadership training at Northern Essex Community College, students used role playing to teach others not to use violence. Pictured from left are Chelsea Perez, Angel Aviles, Andrew Kuforiji and Dennys Melendez.

Violence is everywhere we turn today — on television, in music and in everyday life. But teens now have a place to turn: The Violence Intervention Prevention program which helps teens throughout the city learn how to improve their lives by taking violence out of the equation.

“VIP provides a sense of belonging. All the kids are like a second family to one another. Most kids join gangs to feel like they belong somewhere. VIP offers that sense of belonging in a safe environment and teaches kids that violence is not the way to go,” said Barbara Hildt, senior trainer for Youth Empowerment Services, which provides schools, camps and youth organizations with help creating peaceable conditions where people feel safe and respected, and teaches communication, conflict resolution and cooperative leadership.

Through a grant from the Pentucket People’s Foundation, VIP held leadership training for Haverhill High School incoming freshman at Northern Essex Community College this month. Teens learned about the program, each other, and participated in exercises that taught them how to deal with problems without violence.

“I’m still existing here on this earth because of VIP. I want to make sure younger kids don’t make the same mistakes I did. There’s a lot of negativity in this world and we’re doing what we can to try and change that. Being able to do things like VIP brings us one step closer to accomplishing that,” said Ronnie Rosario, a student leader.

Whittier freshman Stephen Allen was once a troublemaker who had little respect for adults and those in authority. He stole from teachers and other adults and knew he was wrong but didn’t know how to change.

“VIP taught me to respect those above you as well as all those around you. I never knew I could achieve all that I have. I owe everything to Andy Polanco and Percival Perez (outreach specialists for the city of Haverhill),” Allen said.

“Andy and Percival are powerful male role models that come from the same type of background as most of these kids. The influence of those two is so important,” said Lori Curry, senior advisor and health specialist for middle schools in the area. “The administration at Whittier has so many positive things to say about Stephen now. He really is a great kid with a lot of potential.”

Freshman Xavier Burgos hopes VIP will help him learn how to walk away from situations he could never walk away from before.

VIP offers both adult and student mentors because teens sometimes find it easier to learn from each other rather than adults who can’t understand the situations they face everyday in school.

“Adults will tell you that ‘he’s bad, stay away’ or ‘this is wrong, why do you do this,’ but you don’t really listen. When it’s coming from someone your age who you can relate to, it makes make more of an impact,” said Chelsea Perez, a senior at Haverhill High School and VIP leader, who joined as a sophomore.

Teens who join see differences in themselves and the kids they work with.

“The kids we’ve worked with recognize us when we’re walking down the street and you can really see that we’ve made a difference in their lives by their attitude and what they’re doing,” said Zeek Cruz.

Andrew Kuforiji, a recent Haverhill High School graduate and VIP leader applied what he learned while visiting a middle school as part of the program. He saw two kids fist-fighting in the hallway, pulled them apart and stopped the fight.

“Normally I would have just encouraged the fight, but I didn’t. I brought them with me to the training session so they could learn that what they did was wrong and that violence is not the answer,” Kuforiji said.

Those in VIP have formed a type of support group for one another, which some like to call their second family.

“We’re not just doing good for the community, we’re doing good for each other. No matter what someone’s problem is, we are always going to try to help each other. A lot of people always focus on what you’re doing wrong. We focus on what you’re doing right because that’s what is most important,” said Rosario.

Curry said they are lucky they receive the grants that let them do all these activities.

“It’s an important part of youth prevention work. This summer alone we worked with several hundred youths,” Curry said.

VIP creates a place where students can learn to improve their lives and attitudes toward one another, and share their heart and soul and not be judged for who they are, what they’ve done or didn’t do. They have taken steps to better themselves by reaching out to those they can, while helping each other along the way.

“The VIP leaders and their advisers have shown an extraordinary commitment to prevent violence in the community of Haverhill and deserve the support of everyone,” Hildt said.

For more information on the VIP program, e-mail Lori Curry at teach_peace@comcast.net, or Carol Ireland at cire109@aol.com. For gang prevention, teen dating violence or other related matters, e-mail Andy Polanco at p.nyce@hotmail.com.

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