Teens learn anti-gang lessons at Step Up summit

Speaker, breakout sessions encourage county youth to make good choices


There was a simple message behind this year’s Step Up Youth Summit in Visalia: There’s life beyond gangs.

About 1,000 high school students considered at risk of gang involvement attended the event, representing schools throughout the county. The conference offered a keynote speaker and breakout sessions and was topped off by a performance of “Street Dreams” by an ensemble from San Diego’s Victory Outreach Church.

Motivational speaker and MTV’s “Made” coach Jeff Yalden kicked off the day with a talk that emphasized the need for young people to make good choices. Yalden told the audience to visualize good choices as “filling up your cup;” bad choices empty it, he said.

The goal, he said, was to always advance, to have an overflowing cup.

“Every day you want to be doing the little things that other people aren’t doing,” Yalden said.

Special sessions

Breakout sessions offered what past gang-summit participants told organizers they wanted: real-life strategies to get ahead — in their relationships with their friends, at school and in a future career — and a move away from the usual anti-gang speeches.

Sessions included:

  • “Making the choice 4 life” — A day in the life of a teen convicted of a gang crime. What a witness, defendant and convicted gang felon would experience in the criminal-justice system.
  • “Myths, Facts and Illicit Drugs” — Seminars about addiction to methamphetamine, avoiding drugs and how to curb negative behaviors.
  • “kNOw Fear” — This segment, for males only, challenged listeners to understand and know fear as a normal part of life.
  • “Increase Your Less Drama Factor” — This segment, for females only, addressed the handling of emotions.A session focusing on job-interview skills — “Get Hired, Not Fired” — was a favorite of Naomi Amador, sophomore at the La Sierra Military Academy.

    “No one has ever taught me that before,” she said.

    Other career-related seminars provided information on vocational training, finding career pathways, starting a small business, and high-tech and public-safety careers.

    Yesenia Lemus of Woodlake High School said the entire day helped her out.

    “There was a whole lot of information,” she said.

    At the “Red vs. Blue” seminar, Gang Prevention Officer Rob Zieg of the Visalia Police Department explained how wearing the two colors became a dangerous practice. He was blunt, telling teens they are following gang rules without knowing of their prison-gang origins.

    Life advice

    Later, at the career fair, students circulated through a room filled with booths staffed by three dozen local organizations, government agencies, colleges and employers. The Army/National Guard recruiting booths were among the most popular, with soldiers taking turns doing rounds of push-ups for the crowd.

    While hunting down free pencils, stickers, T-shirts, bracelets and brochures from the booths, the students also received advice.

    “Do you guys know what you want to do?” Lupe Gomez, a Tulare County Probation officer, asked of a group of Tulare students.

    The three boys, all 15, stood quietly, shaking their heads

    “Well, you’ve got a little time to think about it,” Gomez said, “but not much.”

    Senior year is too late to start thinking of the future, Gomez said later.

    A performance of Victory Outreach Church of San Diego’s “Street Dreams” topped off the day, with a 90-minute production spotlighting gang culture. The cast and crew was made up of reformed gang members who have performed all over the country. The musical featured rap, gospel songs and a Christian-themed storyline about teen pregnancy and violence.

    The anti-gang summit was not without a minor hitch.

    About 11:30 a.m., a fist-fight broke out between two students, one from Tulare Western High School and the other from Tulare Tech Prep. The altercation arose when one student bumped into another, said a Visalia Police Department spokesman.

    Summit staff, police and keynote speaker Yalden quickly broke up the fight, and the two youths were sent home, according to the police spokesman.

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