Santa Monica City Council members unanimously approved a staff recommendation to accept $246,807 in U.S. Department of Justice grant funds over a three-year period for a focused gang intervention program called “Night Bridges” at Virginia Avenue Park.

The recommendation was moved at the council meeting Tuesday, September 12th, by Councilmember Kevin McKeown, “with the understanding there will be intense community involvement.”

Night Bridges will provide life skills training and monthly learning excursions that are linked to learning objectives, said Scott Wasserman, human services administrator, neighborhood and park initiatives for the City of Santa Monica.

The grant will also extend the Virginia Avenue Park Teen Center evening hours from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. three nights a week.

The goal of the program is to “develop critical life skills” in youths 14 to 21 years old and “teach parents how to recognize and prevent gang involvement in their children,” said Wasserman.

McKeown publicly thanked city staff and 30th District Congressman Henry Waxman for helping to get the funds for the new gang intervention program.

McKeown asked what the community involvement will be in making some of the decisions on how the program will be implemented.

“Do we have a plan on who exactly is the decision-maker in this program?” McKeown asked.

Wasserman and city staff have been working with the Pico Youth and Family Center, nonprofit organizations, the Los Angeles County Probation Department, school district officials and the Santa Monica Police Department on how to effectively target and use the resources for some of the most at-risk teens through a youth resource team, said Julie Rusk, human services manager for the City of Santa Monica.

“I think that everything we know about successful interventions for youths involve people working together across programs and different systems, like police, the probation department, our schools,” Rusk said. “That really makes for a stronger program.”

City staff has also been crafting an outreach strategy and trying to identify youths who can benefit from Night Bridges.

The program’s design is intended to appeal to older youths involved in gangs and who already visit the park and Teen Center, but are more difficult to engage with traditional park programs and come in contact with law enforcement frequently.

“This was a particular gap that we’ve identified and it’s a particularly difficult population to reach, make an impact with,” Rusk said. “You’ve got to be really creative and flexible in your approaches and open to trying new things.”

Night Bridges is expected to begin in January and serve approximately 72 youths from 14 to 21 years old and 105 parents during the three-year grant period.

City staff is just now starting to implement the program, Rusk said.

“I’m very excited,” Rusk said. “It’s a great new opportunity to kind of leverage the work that we already do.

“We have a lot of successful efforts to build on.”