HANFORD - James Purser and Robert Aguilar know what it’s like being in gangs.
In his youth, Purser spent years on the streets homeless before turning his life around.
And Aguilar found himself serving a 17-year prison sentence after being involved in a gang-related shooting.
Now the two are hoping to help others who are like they were.
Purser, who is a pastor at the Living Word Hanford church and Aguilar have started a gang aversion program in hopes of making a difference for people who have gotten caught up in gangs.
Purser pointed to recent local events such as Lemoore’s first two murders in five years as signs that something needs to be done.
“We’re seeing an increase of gang activity,” Purser said. “And when you see a 16-year-old kid get stabbed and killed, it breaks your heart.”
After living a rough lifestyle early in life, Purser found God at the age of 20. For the past 10 years, he’s lived in Hanford and pastored for nine of them.
Aguilar was in the 16th year of his prison sentence before he said his life changed for the better by accepting God into his heart. Since then, he’s seen it as his mission to help people to avoid making the mistakes he made.
“It didn’t get me anywhere in my life,” Aguilar said of being in a gang. “I know from first-hand experience. It wasn’t until my last year in prison when I accepted God that my life turned around.”
At the outreach church, plenty of the churchgoers are reformed gang-members. Purser said he can relate to the pressures and challenges youth go through when it comes to gangs.
“We have a heart for gang members,” Purser said. “It’s not the only people we serve, but we want to reach out.”
Purser and Aguilar have taken the first steps to begin programs aimed at helping as many people as they can, be it youth who want out of the lifestyle or parents or grandparents who see a difference in how their children or grandchildren act.
Recently members of the church raised funds to get certified in training to help gang members with life skills classes and training. The church held a seminar that included drug education, support services and recognizing patterns and behaviors. More seminars are to follow with the church planning on weekly meetings to help people with things such as life skills and computer training. It comes with a faith-based message.
Purser said a big part of the outreach they’re trying to do is to help those who aren’t ready to ask for help.
“Sometimes people in pain don’t ask for help,” Purser said. “If you want to help, sometimes you have to search out to those in pain.”
Other ways Purser said the program aims to help others is to let them know services it can provide.
“We want them to know we have alternatives for them,” Purser said.
The church runs two recovery homes. They have parenting as well as anger management classes. The Kings County Probation Department has also sent convicts on probation to the church in an effort to put lower-level offenders into community programs instead of crowded jails.
Aguilar said problems like guns and drugs go hand-in-hand, and people make choices like using guns not knowing what they’re doing.
“They could use them just out of fear,” Aguilar said.
Purser and Aguilar both want to help others change the ways they think.
“If we can get some of these individuals to think differently,” Purser said. “I know we can make a difference.”
Aguilar believes positive reinforcement can make a difference as well.
“Most kids just want to be loved,” Aguilar said. “We want to teach them and lift them up at the same time.”
For more information about what programs the church has, Purser can be reached at 572-6814.