EAST HARLEM — When police arrested Meldrick Palacios for fighting with local gang members seven years ago, they let him make one phone call.
The then 15-year-old called his friend and member of the Harlem Youth Marines, Ackeem Green.
“He told me I can change my life by putting on a uniform,” Palacios, now 22, said. “I didn’t understand him then.”
He has been an active member of the Young Marines since and volunteers to recruit members who, like him, had been hanging out with local neighborhood gangs.
Palacios and fellow cadets were at Taino Towers on 123rd Street Monday, where the nonprofit organization opened its new headquarters.
The Harlem Youth Marines, which have been around for 35 years, used to call the Harlem Armory their home, but it's been without a base since renovations at the armory began in 2013.
Its goal is to turn their new place into a permanent home that’s open six days a week to offer support to Harlem’s youth, said Executive Director and founder Gregory Collins.
Part of the reason they chose East Harlem is because of the number of gangs recruiting young people in the area.
“The kids need to be protected,” said Denzel Brown who went through the program and volunteers as a recruiter.
“When you walk around and know that a kid died on this block, it brings tears to your eyes. We are here to be their family and friend and their mentors.”
Although cadets wear military uniforms, they are not sponsored or directly affiliated with the military. Its members are not required or expected to join the armed forces — although many do so by choice, Collins said.
“The program is not about young men and women joining the military. It's about teaching discipline and respect,” he said.
The Youth Marines host leadership courses and military-style training that instills a strong sense of duty in each member. Unlike other afterschool programs that focus on keeping children occupied as a way to avoid trouble, Harlem Youth Marines pass on a strong set of values to each cadet, Collins said.
Because they don’t receive funding from the Marines, they are reaching out to elected officials and local businesses. The money is needed to fund more programs and recruit more members, he added.
Palacios has been a Youth Marine ever since his friend and mentor picked him up from the police station. He continues to volunteer with them and plans on enlisting in the U.S. Marine Corps.
“This is part of my identity,” he said. “It’s what I do.”
The road hasn’t been easy. In 2012 his mentor, Green, was shot and killed while playing basketball when a gang member mistook him for a rival, Palacios said.
Collins set up a small memorial to Green in the Harlem Youth Marines’ new headquarters. He is a constant reminder of how important their mission is, he said.