Hundreds of families came together in Oceanside Sunday night in an effort to stop gang violence and make a local park safe once more.
Families gathered at Libby Lake Park, a local spot that has seen two gang-related shootings in the past two years.
On Mar. 13, four teenagers were gunned down at the park on Calle Montecito. The shooting left two of the teens dead – Edgar Sanchez Rios, 16, and Melanie Virgen, 13 – and the other two teens seriously injured.
A couple weeks later, police arrested four young men in connection with the fatal shooting. They were charged with murder, attempted murder and participation in a criminal street gang.
On Sunday, representatives from Set-Free Worldwide Ministries organized a BBQ at the park to send a message of hope to the community. A group of former gang members and addicts from the organization spearheaded the event.
And attendees listened.
“I came from a really abusive past,” said Arlene Garcia, of Set-Free Ministries, as she talked about her childhood. “From the age of 12, I was addicted to meth. And, I just got tired of it. I wanted to change and didn't know where to turn.”
Garcia ended up turning to religion and got her life in order. Now, she’s helping others change too.
"The community is crying out for help and nobody is doing it, so we're doing it," she said.
What Garcia is doing looks simple – a jump house, BBQ and neighborhood families coming together. However, the event is having a major impact.
Kevin Beckum, a pastor with Set-Free Ministries, says their representatives really understand the hardships of gang and street violence because many of them have lived it themselves.
Thus, when they speak to kids and families at events like this, they’re speaking from experience.
"It's interesting when people with PHDs or different educational backgrounds try to reach out to an addict of gang member but they’ve never really lived that life,” said Beckum. “We have that respect, and it’s approachable.”
A team of unlikely heroes, truly using their pasts to move Libby Lake forward.
"If I can do it, people can do it. I was hopeless at one time, so…” added Garcia.