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Former gang members learn how to be family men

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TOLEDO, OH (Toledo News Now) -

This is an important follow-up to a WTOL 11 investigation into Toledo gangs.

We went inside a local prison where hardened criminals are starting to feel their shells break apart.

It's a program called The Ridge Project and it's helping to reshape gang members and others, one man at a time.

"It kind of makes me want to tear up," said Anthony Wheatley, a former gang member. 

He shot two people sitting in a car in north Toledo three years ago.  Now, he says he's a different man.

"It's to tear up to see that people really do care," he said.

He's talking about people like The Ridge Project Co-Executive Director and Founder Ron Tijerina.

"As we do this workshop, think about your children," Tijerina told the group of inmates involved in his program at Toledo Correctional Institution.

Tijerina has been where those guys have been.  He served 15 years in prison.  Now as a devoted husband, he and his wife Kathy run The Ridge Project in prisons, jails and communities.  They have reached more than 500,000 people across Ohio.

Tijerina said the change in the men starts with a focus on their families.

"The first thing they understand is the number one reason why a man comes to prison is because he's selfish," he explained.

He says many times, that selfishness is learned through the guys' relatives - that they are reflections of generations of incarceration.

Wheatley is a perfect example.  He told us he saw his dad and brothers in and out of prison all his life.  Wheatley has a young daughter.

"I'm trying to cut this off with me," he said. "I'm not trying to let my kids or anything like that be involved with prison. I don't want that for them."

Kathy Tijerina agreed.  "This cycle has to stop and in order for it to stop, dad [in general] really has to wake up," she told us.

"Remember, manhood is not a destination.  It is a journey," said Willie Knighten to the group of men sitting before him.  Knighten is a former gang member from Toledo.  He's now a case manager for The Ridge Project. Day in and day out, he brings a message of hope that there's a right way to be a man.

"Especially if they keep their kids first," said Knighten. "Especially if they keep their family at the forefront, then they can make it."

Joe Young says he's gotten the message.  After running around with gang members and being convicted of two felonious assaults, kidnapping, and aggravated burglary, Young now trains specialty dogs at the prison to help the disabled.  He embraces The Ridge Project teachings.

"It means a lot because it gives you the tools that you need to be able to communicate to your significant other, children, as well as people in the community," he said.

Those running Toledo Correctional said they can see the difference in the men participating in the program.

"They hold themselves better.  They stand taller," said Warden Assistant Darlene Mitchell. "You can see it in their faces and in their eyes that they believe [what's being taught]."

People running the program told us it's a transformation in values, a transformation in focus, and a transformation from gangbangers to better men.

"It's something we have to live by," said inmate Wheatley.

During The Ridge Project sessions, the men recite what's called the "Tyro Declaration," which is full of positive statements and life-guiding rules to follow.

The Tijerinas said a tyro, by definition, is a novice or beginner, but it also means a warrior.  And these guys are in a fight for their lives. Being a tyro replaces their old affiliation with a gang and provides a new sense of belonging to a positive group of men.

Click here to view the Tyro Declaration.

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