Drawing, playing games and career days sound like normal summer camp activities. But this year, Lexington County parents signed their children up for Making the Right Connections or MTRC, a program aimed at empowering young people not to join a gang.

“The goal of this program is the prevention aspect of working gangs,” Investigator Brian Zwolak said. “The Sheriff’s Department is doing a lot of suppression where we go out and enforce the laws and that’s our job, but when you’re working with gangs, it’s a community issue and you also have to deal with prevention.”

MTRC began 30 years ago in Los Angeles under the direction of Marge Rath. That six-week program’s success encouraged her to start it in other areas, where the problem is the same.

“Having it here in West Columbia really isn’t any different,” Rath said. “The gang activity has its own social, psychological reasons and as long as you have a large population, you’re going to have gang activity.”

Lexington County’s pilot program lasted two weeks and focused on self-esteem building and empowering youth to create their own path in life.

“We work on conflict resolution skills, you don’t have to use your fists to solve a problem,” Rath said. “We work a lot on values clarification, what’s right, what’s wrong, so that they can identify those things if and when they’re approached.”

The inaugural camp was made possible thanks to Turner Memorial AME Church and other public safety agencies that volunteered time resources.

Zwolak said those partnerships are crucial to continuing MTRC in the future.

“This is a community problem. It’s not just a Sheriff’s Department problem, it affects everybody. Without the buy-in from the community members and the churches and schools and everything else, it’s very difficult for the Sheriff’s Department to impact gangs.”