YAKIMA, Wash. - The Yakima School District is working to reach kids before they turn to gang involvement. 

Lewis and Clark Middle School Counselor Felix Espinoza said kids start to show signs of gang involvement when aspects of their personality begin to slowly change. 

"It's like a virus in that it takes over the whole body and it's all the kid thinks about, they think about hanging out with this group, they think about this kind of as the way, kind of as the only truth," Espinoza said.

Safety and Security Director Sara Cordova said older gang members recruit younger kids to do their dirty work. 

"Young kids are often easier to get to do things that you want them to do," Cordova said.

Washington's juvenile laws also make for lighter sentences for these kids. 

Espinoza said middle school is a pivotal moment for a lot of kids because they are impressionable.

"They're in a really tough stage in their life, they're figuring out who they are," he said.

Cordova tells me the middle schools have particularly strict dress codes to avoid students wearing gang glorifying clothing. At Washington Middle School for example, students are only allowed to wear grey, white and black. 

Those students may be referred to counselors like Espinoza. He builds relationships with students to learn about what pushes them into gang involvement.

"Building those therapeutic relationships so you do come to the point where you start learning about their values," he said.

Espinoza said a pattern that appears over and over again in these kids is a history of abuse, domestic violence or broken families. 

YSD provides resources like substance abuse counselors and mental health specialists through its partners to try to address some of the problems students may be facing. It also works with partners to provide mentors to high-risk kids.

These mentors may be former gang members like Manuel Amescua. His father left him at the young age of four. He lived in California as a kid and became involved in gangs when his mother moved them to southern California. 

"It's the love that they show you, the hey man, the hugs, hey man you're from the hood, you belong to something, you belong to somebody and you're part of a family and me growing up I felt, I felt I had no family," Amescua said.

Shortly after he was initiated at age 13, he began to see what being involved in a gang really meant. 

"My gang leader and another gang leader got together, and a fight broke out and right next to me, my friend's getting stabbed, I see another friend pull out a gun and start shooting," he said.

He faced many near-death experiences and even went to prison. Amescua tells me God inspired him to turn his life around and now he wants to use his experiences to get through to kids and gang members. 

"If I can talk to somebody and share what I've experienced and warn him then I can stop him now, then it was all worth it," Amescua said.

Washington Middle School Principal William Hilton said awareness about gang involvement and access to mentors has really helped students.

He said so far this year, he hasn't seen any kids show signs of gang behavior at his school.  

Espinoza said positive social influences help lower the risk of students getting into gangs. 

"When you have pro-social mentors, when you have pro-social things like activities sports, clubs, all these things help diminish some of these risk factors," he said.

Espinoza tells me to continue combating the problem, access to these things needs to increase and everyone needs to get involved.

"It takes a village, I know that sounds cliché," he said. "Kids are getting bombarded by these types of negative anti-social things, and it's our job to try to bombard them back with positive interventions."

Amescua said showing these young kids and gang members that they are cared about is really important.

"We all carry the same thing, we're hurt, some way or another we're hurt," he said. "Sometimes we're taking it out on each other, and I say what we need is to love one another, love your enemies, love people and love that's what will make us change."