Sitting at a park bench in Clarke Square Park, Rafael Mercado, better known as Pancho, is proud when he talks about the surrounding neighborhood where he grew up. He points to the house across the street with a smile on his face that he can’t seem to hide.
“My brother owns that house there,” he says, then he points at the brick house further down. “There was a lady there named Ms. Robinson. We’d all go there, and she’d hand out candy.” Mercado describes the neighborhood as a lively melting pot where everyone knew each other when he was a boy in the ’70s. Then his expression changes and his cheerfulness fades as he begins to describe what the neighborhood has turned into.
Gang violence, crime, prostitution and illegal drug activity became prevalent. Mercado got swept up in gang life and committed crimes that eventually got him sent to juvenile detention. He was a good kid until he was molested by a priest when he was between the ages of 8 and 12. It wasn’t until he worked with a psychiatrist while in federal prison that he realized how much the experience influenced him to make poor choices later on in life.
“You feel like crap when you commit a crime, and you don’t know why you’re doing it,” he says. “Then you find out you’re a good person.” After making light of his own life, he began considering the many other people that have been through traumatic experiences and pondered ways to help. Once he was released from prison, Mercado returned to his neighborhood to find heroin addiction destroying the lives of relatives and friends. Within a nine-month period, he lost four cousins to the drug. To him, it seemed like no one was talking about the problem, so he took it upon himself to spread awareness and make a change in his community the only way he knew how.
With friends and neighbors, Mercado began passing out pamphlets to educate people about drugs, self-defense and places to go for assistance. He leveraged the power of community by recruiting people he knew who wanted to make a difference in the places they call home. A group of volunteers and he continue to knock on doors and walk up to sex workers, proving to be friendly faces in the neighborhood that will keep coming back.
“You gotta engage the community, get them involved,” explains Mercado. “You just keep coming, then they accept you.” That community service group became TEAM HAVOC, which stands for “Together Everyone Achieves More Helping Another Volunteer or Cause.”
The group meets in Clarke Square Park every Saturday to clean up nearby parks. On Friday and Wednesday nights, the group of volunteers meet from 7-10 p.m. to hand out pamphlets and other safety items like condoms and gun locks. TEAM HAVOC works with existing organizations to raise awareness about the issues mentioned and to show offenders that they will be welcomed back to their neighborhoods. Mercado has learned that the most effective way to stop people from committing crimes and taking drugs is to “let them know that they are part of the community.”
You can learn more about TEAM HAVOC on Facebook.
View the article on the Shepherd Express.