Sunday, May 19, 2013
Former Gang Member Speaks Out About The Life He Left
Police, social workers struggle to keep gang violence from growing
ANCHORAGE—With 74 validated gangs in town, Anchorage police have their hands full trying to stop criminal activities that begins when gang members are young.
It’s a problem with no real solution that some community members are trying to fix, one person at a time.
For former gang member Lorenzo Tuia, striving to be better has been a tough road.
"If you haven't graduated from school, and don't have diploma or a GED, its very hard," Tuia said.
Tuia was 12 years old when joined a gang with his cousins.
"We stole bikes, got into a lot of violent things with other people," Tuia said.
He said he regrets his criminal behavior, which is why he decided to turn his life around and make better choices.
"Life is too short,” Tuia said. “I could be either behind bars or dead. It just took whatever I had and ran with it."
But it's not that easy for others who want to get out.
Gangs in Anchorage are diverse, often involve families and have members from every neighborhood.
"We've heard of individuals that are in elementary schools that have been joining gangs," said Officer Scott Lofthouse, who collects gang intelligence for the Anchorage Police Department. "It’s just a lifestyle that they have. We always think of gangs and drugs being tied together, and while we do have that problem here, there's a lot of folks they just do it because they like to do it."
The recent assault of a man in East Anchorage was gang-related. Police said one of the suspects has been a gang member since he was 14.
"We've known about the one gentleman since 2004,” Lofthouse said. “We've had information on him from when he was at Bartlett High School.”
Gang violence is a growing problem that city leaders are trying to solve by getting young adults out of trouble and into success; a commitment that has to involve the entire community.
"To get there it’s going to take all of us pulling in the same direction, all of us committed to seeing our children make good choices, stay on track, and graduate on time," said Michele Brown, President & CEO of United Way Of Anchorage. "Every single one of us can have a role to play, whether it’s as simple as knowing the kids in your neighborhood, saying hi to them, letting them know that somebody cares about them, they need help with homework."
Community effort will produce more stories like Tuia’s.
"I wouldn't get a comfortable feeling of accomplishment if I was to go that route," said Tuia. "I'm good now, just standing tall and stuff, and not turning back at all."
Tuia is proud to say he's working in construction.
Agencies like United Way Of Anchorage are partnering with groups across town to boost graduation rates up to 90 percent by 2020, to counsel teens and parents on how to avoid making negative choices like gang involvement.
Brown said the organization needs more community members to be mentors and volunteers.
AK Pride program and the Anchorage Youth Development Coalition work to get teens off the streets and into healthy activities and jobs. But there aren't a lot of opportunities for those with criminal records
It’s up to the individual, Tuia said, to make that change for the better.