When Wesley Henes was younger, he'd stare at the mountains from his southeast Colorado Springs neighborhood and wonder what was out there.
They appeared so close yet seemingly untouchable.
When he was younger, Henes sold drugs and hung out with gang members.
Now 17, he looks back at those days and wonders if his life would be different if he grew up somewhere else, someplace where kids spent their time outdoors, in nature.
"I think if I was more of an outside person and grew up in a better neighborhood, I wouldn't have made the mistakes I did," he said. "Everybody makes mistakes, but growing up in the neighborhood, I chose the fast life."
Experts in youth development says kids in neighborhoods known for crimes and gang violence tend to gravitate toward street activities when they're bored. They get high, they commit crimes, they get into fights, they get into trouble.
Community leaders across the region aim to get youths off the streets by offering them sports and outdoors activities.
"Boredom is the main contributing factor as to why these youngsters resort to getting high and acting a fool," said Mark Salazar, the founder and CEO of Hard Knox Gang Prevention and Intervention, a Pueblo nonprofit. He's a former gang member who recalls his daily routine when he was younger: "A daily thing for all of us was waking up at noon, finding something to get into and partying all night. We hustled all day to support our lifestyle."
Youths are still caught up doing the same things, gang experts say. A handful of groups across the region are trying to break that cycle.
That's why Estevan and Lisa Medina started Second Chance Through Faith, a gang prevention program that focuses on youths in southeast Colorado Springs, an area that police say has the most gang members. They take boys and girls on camping, fishing and hiking trips - and for most it's their first wilderness experience.
Henes didn't grow up with family members or friends who spent time in nature. He never woke up early on a Saturday morning to head to the mountains to hike or fish or ride a mountain bike. He spent time on the streets, got involved in gangs and was sent to juvenile detention. He recently got out, and he's trying to focus on getting more doses of the outdoors.
In June, Second Chance Through Faith took a small group of at-risk youths on a five-day camping trip. Most of the boys had never spent a night outdoors, fished or hiked, but they adapted to their surroundings and life that isn't tied to a smartphone.
One afternoon they went whitewater rafting on the Arkansas River near Buena Vista. Growing up on the streets, the boys had learned to survive mostly on their own, said Estevan Medina, who supervised the trip. Now, the novice rowers had to work together, especially when a woman on another raft fell into the water. The boys immediately grabbed her and pulled her into their raft.
She later called them her heroes.
Henes was on the rescue raft. That day, he bonded with boys from different backgrounds, different upbringings. The outdoors changed him, he said.
About 775,000 American kids are in gangs, according to Kids Play USA Foundation.
Colorado Springs police said last year the city had about 700 gang members and 10 percent were teenagers.
Kids Play USA advises youths get involved in sports at least three times a week after school, when they're most vulnerable to violent crime, as a way to keep them from gang activity. "Teens left unsupervised ... are twice as likely to hang out with a gang member and three times more likely to be engaged in criminal behavior," the organization notes on its website.
The mixing of sports and youths to encourage a positive outcome isn't a new concept. That's one reason Southeast Springs Soccer Initiative, or SeSSI, exists. It's a summer program for kids across southeast Colorado Springs who want to be active during the afternoons. Most of that time, they're kicking a soccer ball around. It keeps them off the streets and focused on fun.
Some facts about southeast Colorado Springs, according to the U.S. Census Bureau:
- The median household income is $35,857 - about $18,000 less than the city as a whole.
- African-Americans make up 13.4 percent of the population, compared to 6.2 percent of the population of the city as a whole.
- Latinos make up 35 percent of the population, compared to 17 percent of the population of the city as a whole.
A 2008 study by the Columbia Center for the Heath of Urban Minorities said that minority neighborhoods had far fewer recreational facilities than white neighborhoods.
"Most resources located in recreational facilities required a fee and were less dense in minority and low-income areas," the study said. "Those located inside parks were usually free to use, sports-related, and denser in poor and minority neighborhoods."
Perhaps that's one reason why SeSSI takes soccer balls around southeast Colorado Springs.
"I think it has that reputation," said Matt Stelmaszek, executive director of SeSSI, a collaborative effort of Penrose-St. Francis Health Services and local law enforcement to use soccer to reduce youth violence in Colorado Springs. "I don't know if all that is true. With anything, it just kind of spreads. I think the southeast has more of an identity and a culture that the rest of the Springs doesn't have. Unfortunately, it gets that kind of bad rep. I think it's a great place."
Gazette reporter Maria St. Louis-Sanchez contributed to this story.