Since its inception nearly a quarter-century ago, STRONG Youth has been at the forefront of eradicating young people’s involvement in gangs and gun violence on Long Island.
And the Uniondale organization does it by providing essential resources and support to underrepresented and underfunded neighborhoods and communities.
STRONG — short for Struggling To Reunite Our New Generation — stands out from other organizations in its unconventional approach to helping young people at-risk.
Rather than simply providing temporary clinical support, STRONG instead creates a nurturing, family-like environment, resulting in what Executive Director Rahsmia Zatar describes as a deep and lasting connections of more than 100,000 people.
“You don’t get discharged from a family,” Zatar said.
That powerful familial unit is paramount to STRONG’s success. The proof lies with the countless people who have gone through the program, grown up, and now have families of their own — lovingly calling STRONG staff members their “moms” and “aunties.”
This enduring bond is a testament to the organization’s triumph in fostering a supportive community that extends far beyond a child’s time in the program.
“That’s what we aim to build, a sense of family,” Zatar said. “And that’s how they see us.”
Serving as a vital link between law enforcement, legislators, school administration, and communities throughout Long Island, STRONG offers a plethora of social services, including assisting newly arrived immigrants with school enrollment, collaborating with school districts to identify and support at-risk adolescents as young as 11, working with families to strengthen bonds, organizing workshops and field trips, and actively addressing issues within the communities. They even collaborate with the Suffolk County probation office.
“It sounds like an interesting partnership, but their probation department has been very forward-thinking as far as understanding how community and law enforcement could — and should — partner for the best outcome possible,” Zatar said. “They recognize that locking up and monitoring kids isn’t the correct answer.”
STRONG University — the organization’s groundbreaking initiative centralized around disconnected 14- to 21-year-olds who have been through the criminal justice system — aims to help young people reintegrate themselves back into their neighborhoods, and society as a whole.
They also want to make sure none of them return to incarceration by combatting the so-called school-to-prison pipeline by offering essential services like education, family aid, case management, advocacy, mental health support, and promoting positive identity formation.
Gangs simply have great appeal, Zatar said. They offer a false promise of love, protection and fulfillment — which is often “everything these kids are looking for, that the community isn’t generally giving them. And that’s where we come in.”
It’s important to address the root causes pushing young people toward gangs, Zatar said, such as deep-rooted inequalities and systemic issues faced by that very vulnerable population in Uniondale. Addressing gang violence requires collaboration from legislators, community leaders and school districts.
Zatar also emphasized the urgency for politicians to recognize the need for equitable funding, bridging gaps in essential services and addressing the needs of the communities they represent.
“The disadvantages that poverty and institutionalized racism bring just exacerbates the possibilities for ending up in a bad place,” Zatar said. “It’s unfortunate because systemic racism and injustices, it’s ingrained, to a big extent. And it’s not going away.”
According to one study commissioned by STRONG, more than 70 percent of Uniondale students are economically disadvantaged — nearly double the Long Island average. The school district itself is also underfunded, receiving $10,000 less per student than other districts.
If that weren’t bad enough, there are more than 3,200 students for every one guidance counselor. Across Long Island, each guidance counselor is responsible for fewer than 400 students, meaning they can more effectively help each of them plan for life after high school, compared to the vastly overworked counselors in Uniondale.
“Money is always an obstacle,” Zatar said. “Getting the powers that be that control the purse strings to understand not only the value in our kids, but the work that we’re doing,”
STRONG receives nearly a quarter-million in funding from Nassau County each year — the cost to incarcerate one teenager for a single year. The group is advocating for a seat at the table, increased funding, and for politicians to be well-informed and courageous enough to prioritize the needs of the communities they represent
With gun violence the leading cause of death among American children, Zatar emphasizes it is “absolutely” more urgent than ever for organizations like hers to receive the funding and resources necessary for effective intervention.
At a rally last year immediately after the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, STRONG’s founder Sergio Argueta said “it is easier for young people to get their hands on guns than it is to get their hands on jobs.”
That same rally also included renowned civil rights attorney Frederick Brewington called the current system broken.
“There is an issue in our country, and it is sickness,” said Brewington, a STRONG board member. “And the sickness is that we allow people to take our voters, then allow people to peddle poison in the form of government, monies that are used for guns, and used for drugs, and used for everything except for what it should be, which is to uplift the young people. And we allow that to happen.
“We need to be in people’s faces. Every single one of us.”