Group has unusual ways to protest aid cuts

Motivational speaker Amory Sepulveda, left, executive director Rahsmia Motivational speaker Amory Sepulveda, left, executive director Rahsmia Zatar, and project coordinator Beria Camargo, center, of Strong Youth Inc., in Uniondale with children who used to participate in the group's programs. (Aug. 8, 2012) Photo Credit: Barry Sloan

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Tactics employed by STRONG Youth Inc., in the fight to restore $7.3 million cut from Nassau County youth social service programs have been blasted by some Republican legislators as "sick," criticized by the county's social services commissioner, and lauded by social service advocates.

Leaders of the Uniondale-based gang-prevention group said they are hoping the debate generated by their demonstrations, including a mock funeral with a child-size coffin to mourn the loss of funding and showing up at a Nassau County Legislature meeting bound and gagged as "political hostages," will reignite stalled talks between Republican and Democratic leaders over restoring the funds.

"For us this is a matter of life and death," said Sergio Argueta, who founded STRONG in 2000 in response to the gang-related slaying of a friend. "I've buried 32 kids in this community."

Presiding Officer Peter Schmitt (R-Massapequa) and Legis. Rose Walker (R-Hicksville) criticized the group at the Aug. 6 legislature meeting where adult volunteers and teens dressed as hostages. Schmitt suggested he should have called child protective services and Walker said she was "sickened" by the display. Nassau Social Services Commissioner John Imhof later sent an email to community groups criticizing the act.

"When people call us radical and say we're extremists, what's extreme and radical is them putting us in the middle of this chaos," Argueta said.

The Republican majority legislature voted in May to overturn guaranteed funding to the youth groups provided by the county's red-light camera fund. The mental health and youth groups argued the money had been promised to them in 2009 when they were asked by county officials to lobby state lawmakers to approve the cameras.

Republican legislators and County Executive Edward Mangano said the money is needed to pay for $41 million in commercial property tax refunds. Mangano proposed borrowing to pay for the refunds, but lacked the necessary votes from Democrats to pass the bonding.

Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport) has said Democrats are concerned about the spending plan and will not consider supporting bonding until a "nonpartisan, independent" redistricting process is considered.

While most of the social service groups have railed against Republican and Democratic legislators alike, Rahsmia Zatar, STRONG's executive director, said the group is focusing its efforts on Mangano.

"We were guaranteed money through a tax-free revenue source, but he chose to tie us to this issue of bonding, when it had nothing to do with us," Zatar said. "He sets the priorities for the county, and his actions show youth are not a priority."

Mangano spokesman Brian Nevin said the county executive "has held the line on property taxes for two consecutive years while maintaining services for residents as he knows families and seniors are struggling to survive in this economy."

STRONG's demonstrations have deviated from the routine rallies organized by the Nassau Youth Services Coalition, but that agency's executive director Peter Levy said "any effort by any agency that keeps this issue up front, we're supporting."

STRONG, which lost $200,000 in funding and laid off five social workers, is no stranger to using unconventional methods to get its point across. The group has taken middle and high school students to visit grave sites of those killed by gang violence and organized field trips to prisons to warn against the dangers of gang life.

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