Kathy Chavez retires as associate director of Youth Development Inc.

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Community members will still see Kathy Chavez around Valencia County because she says this county means the world to her and is her home.

Submitted photo: Kathy Chavez, the associate director of Youth Development Inc. Valencia, retired on June 29 after 21 years of service.

But on Friday, June 29, she retired from her position as the associate director of Youth Development Inc-Valencia after 21 years of service.

She has been referred to as “the rock of YDI-Valencia” by colleague and friend Mike Ogas, the co-founder and principal of the School of Dreams Academy.

“Because of her strong leadership skills and the good relationships she has with the community, she was able to build a strong base,” Ogas said.

Chavez co-founded SODA with Ogas and his wife, Teresa Ogas, in a partnership with YDI-Valencia.

“I guess because I was born and raised here, I really care about what goes on in this community,” Chavez said. “You know, you always want to make it better than what you had. And make a difference.”

When Chavez started with YDI two decades ago, the organization had been in the county for only seven years, with three operating programs, including family counseling services, a youth workforce development program and Project Succeed at Los Lunas High School.

At the time, Valencia County was experiencing a lot of gang activity and the community didn’t have the resources to deal with.

“When I started with YDI, they had just been given a grant for gang prevention,” Chavez said. “I knew about prison gangs, because I had run the detention center. But as far as the street gangs, I had to do a lot of research and go to a lot of trainings.”

The Albuquerque YDI had an extensive gang prevention program and helped give her a lot of direction, but she developed her own customized gang program for the county.

What works for Albuquerque doesn’t necessarily work for Valencia County, she said.

Part of her research involved photographing the graffiti around town, and visiting the News-Bulletin archives to collect gang activity news stories from the prior year.

She also had a friend at KARS radio who compiled gang related newscasts for her.

Then she began networking with schools, government and county officials to build a collaborative effort. She already knew a lot of the community leaders, because she went to school with them, she said.

She presented her research findings to the mayor of Belen and the Belen City Council, the Los Lunas City Council and county officials.

That’s how she was able to build a network and form youth task forces in Belen and Los Lunas with other community leaders from public health, the police and fire departments. They helped her with resources and activities for the youth.

In Los Lunas, she worked with Mike Ogas, who ran special services for the school district at the time, and Maria Elena Ayala.

In Belen, she worked closely with Kenneth Griego, the then superintendent of the Belen School District.

They helped Chavez identify gang members so she could begin meeting with the teens on a weekly basis.

“I had to use what knowledge I had of gangs, and all my training, but really, I used to sit and listen to them tell me,” Chavez said. “I learned so much from these gang kids, it was just amazing. What I used to do was to help them and show them a positive way, because you can’t just walk in and say, ‘Ok, if you want to be in my group you can’t be in a gang,’ because that just isn’t going to work.”

Chavez says gangs are their own fraternity, and generally consist of individuals who have not had positive role models in their lives, so she had to earn their respect.

“I had to let them know I wasn’t there to be the police,” Chavez said. “I wasn’t their mom, I wasn’t their dad, I wasn’t the teachers. I was just there to work with them and show them different, positive ways of doing things.”

Chavez has made some tough decisions over her career, but she is not one to follow popular trends or pressure, she said.

“I try to do things for the right reasons, even if it’s not the popular way to go,” she said. “And we teach kids to do that, so if you’re not practicing what you preach, kids see it immediately.

“Working with the gang kids, working with direct service was probably the most enjoyable for me. They’re just looking for direction, for somebody to listen to them, for respect,” she said. “You know, respect goes both ways. I never met one of those kid that I didn’t like.”

She helped start an alternative school with Maria Elena Ayala in the community center at the San Clemente Catholic Church for students who had missed a lot of school or had dropped out.

“We did a lot with them, like the ropes course to develop trust,” she said. “We had some little mini conferences. We had some speakers come in for positive speaking. Jamie Goldberg was one of our keynote speakers at one time.”

Goldberg is the executive officer of the 13th Judicial District Court who received services from YDI’s workforce development when he was a youth.

He is one of YDI-Valencia’s many success stories, Chavez said.

She recently encountered a young woman who is graduating college this year to be a teacher. She recognized Chavez, and said she had been a part of the gang prevention program.

On another occasion, she ran into a dental hygienist who had been a part of the program.

“And she was a tough little gangster,” Chavez said.

In 2003, Chavez received the YWCA’s Women on the Move award and the Governor’s Award for Outstanding New Mexico Women.

She has helped put together several events in the community, including the Candlelight Vigil Memorial Walk for people who have lost loved to gang violence, and another for victims of DWI crashes, the Family Festival at UNM, health fair, Crime Prevention Day along with Top Cops, Multicultural Day, Graduate New Mexico, Child Abuse Prevention event and the YDI Halloween and Christmas events.

Chavez brought to YDI the skills and experience from her work in law enforcement, corrections, county government and youth services.

She was certified through the Law Enforcement Academy and held positions as chief of communications for the Valencia County Sheriff’s office and Valencia County Juvenile Detention director. She is the founder of the Valencia Chapter of Mothers Against Gang Violence.

At YDI, Chavez has worked as a gang prevention specialist, project coordinator, division director, deputy director and associate director in charge of the YDI-Valencia Division.

She was responsible for administration and management of all YDI-Valencia youth development and prevention programs, and she administered federal, state and local grants.

“YDI is really unique because it lets you be as creative as you want as long as you are working for the betterment of the community and the kids,” she said. “So, that has really helped me, because every community is different, every community works different. And I guess being from here, and being able to work with the culture and the people, I know how to get in, and how they work and what’s needed.”

Chavez was born in Belen, and has lived in Peralta most of her life. It has meant a lot to her to work with youth in her own community, she said.

But now it’s time for her to do for herself, and she is looking forward to spending time with her mother, Teofilia Griego, each of her three grown children — Nanette, Josh and Craig — and a lot more time with her seven grandchildren.

“And the grandkids are already planning,” Chavez said. “We take them on the boat at least once in the summer, but they’ve decided … now that grandma is around a little more, it may be more.”

No doubt Chavez and husband, Eddie, will be seen around the county hauling their horses or pulling their pontoon boat off to Elephant Butte or Navajo Lakes.

And it’s likely you will catch her at local rodeos and around town snapping photographs, a life-long hobby she is excited to pursue.


-- Email the author at dfox@news-bulletin.com.