By Nancy Gutierrez
As Daniel Longoria walks the hallways of Wilson Middle School in Exeter, students stop to shake his hand and say hi. He asks some of them if they are staying out of trouble.
"I haven't been in trouble for a year," one unidentified student said.
Daniel is not a teacher but he knows many of the students well. Daniel works with Recovery Resources, an agency that provides treatment for alcoholism, addiction and co-dependency as well as adolescent treatment programs. Recovery Resources has a yearly contract with Exeter Public Schools and as a gang specialist Daniel has worked with middle school students in Exeter for six years. Though it is his job to help students stay out of gangs and keep out of trouble, it has only been eight years since he was released from Pelican Bay State Prison, a correctional facility for some of the worst prisoners in the California prison system.
Daniel grew up in Lindsay and at a young age became affiliated with a gang. He got his first tattoo at age 10 and had three more by 12. One of his tattoos was the Roman numeral XIV connecting him with a known gang. His career as a gang member had started in the sixth grade.
It was at this age that Daniel began drinking and using drugs.
"It's my experience that you can't have one with out the other," he said. "If you're in a gang rugs will follow. If you're into drugs, gangs will follow."
He said it was his substance abuse that allowed him to believe the lies that older gang members told him about the benefits of being in a gang. Substance abuse was also what lead Daniel to commit assaults and land him in jail.
"Between the ages of 12 and 30 I was incarcerated. I was probably out [of prison] collectively two and a half years," Daniel said. "I lost my teen years, I lost my twenties."
Daniel looks back in amazement at how some of the best years of his life were spent, surrounded by violence. He was a prisoner in the Security Housing Unit (SHU)
at Corcoran State prison during scandal surrounding correctional officers initiating fights among rival gang members inside the prison. Daniel was also in he SHU at Pelican Bay State Prison.
"They separated me from the general population for the safety of the other prisoners," he said. "I was a threat to the institution. I was very assaultive towards other people."
In the SHU Daniel was on a fixed diet and weighed 130 pounds. he had limited time outdoors and no outside contact other than with correctional officers.
Daniel said it wasn't until he was incarcerated in Pelican Bay that he started to realize he had wasted these years on a belief that his lifestyle was all he needed.
"At 30 it dawned on me," he said. "I'm not going to get anything for this."
Daniel said he began to realize that what he was told by older gang members about the lifestyle contradicted itself.
"I started to see holes in what they said," he said. "They talked about brown pride, but our biggest enemy was other brown people. How can I be proud of everything Mexican and my Mexican descent and hate it at the same time."
It was in Pelican Bay that Daniel decided to change his life and stay away from gangs drugs an d alcohol. With the help of his parole officer Gary Paden, Daniel became involved in the Porterville Addiction Abuse Recovery (PAAR) center, an alcohol, drug and concurrent diagnosis recovery program.
"Danny was at a turning point," Paden said. "I used every tool I could to help him. The biggest tool was the love of his family and mom."
Paden said Danny had a sour attitude as he was entering PAAR but later called Paden about staying with the program to work on other issues he had. Daniel was so affected by the program that he voluntarily stayed there 8 months. The
CEO of PAAR, Clark Murray, noticed something in Daniel and talked to him about using his unique story to help other people.Paden said they were so impressed by Daniel that when he became a certified addiction counselor they hired him as a staff member.
"They [Murray and Paden] helped me and were positive male role models for me. I was an ex-con and an ex-junkie who had self-esteem issues that no one would trust, but they made time to help me," he said.
Daniel became a Certified Addict Specialist (CAS) through The California Association of Addiction Recovery Resources (CAARR). CAARR offers an alternative form of education for recovering people working in the alcohol and drug field. Daniel graduated from the CAARR institute, a 25 week program that teaches recovery program skills, ethics, law and regulations, and core knowledge of addiction recovery. After working with PAAR he applied for a job with recovery resources (RR) and began working with schools that RR had contracts with.
He now works with students at Wilson three days a week as a gang specialist. Longoria meets with students who have started displaying behavioral problems or have started affiliating themselves with gangs. Some students are on behavior contracts and Daniel checks on their progress.
"I redirect students and challenge their behavior," he said. "At this age they need someone who will attack their imagination."
Daniel uses his experience to show kids the reality of what being in a gang means. He said the propensity towards it today is similar to the popularity of disco in the '70s. He said gangs are no longer limited to low income minority students. It has captured the attention of children of all races and those in the upper and middle class.
"For kids small towns like Exeter are boring and gangs offer them excitement," he said. "I'm glad I have the opportunity to do this. I teach these kids how to talk things out with other kids instead of fighting."
Daniel has come a long way from Pelican Bay. He said he plans on becoming a published author some day. He has kept journals of his life experiences since the age of 13 and has boxes filled with notebooks. He said he owes his progress and success in recovery to Murray, Paden and his fiance Yvonne Moreno.
"He tends to give me a lot of credit but he did all the work," Paden said. "He is an intelligent person who made some bad decisions."