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Your dreams or your gang: Teens struggle with decision to leave gang
By David De Rurange/KTVL.com
GRANTS PASS, Ore. -- Even if he's shown the right way, Eric Smith says he's proud to be in a gang.
The young man is serving time at the Rogue Valley Youth Correctional Facility. He is one of several young men being held as felony offenders. The facility in Grants pass houses offenders between the ages of 12 and 25 from all over Oregon.
But Smith has a dream. He would like to pursue a crime-free life in fashion design or to be a barber. Staff members at Rogue Valley Youth Correctional Facility want to help Smith and young men like him. They have programs to show the young men then can leave a gang and how to pursue their dreams.
News 10 spoke to Smith, asking for perspective as to why he can't just leave his gang, and never look back.
"(Are you in a gang?) Yes, I am. (Are you proud to be in a gang?) Yeah. (Why?) Because my gang is my family." Smith said, "I just don't see myself getting out. I can't."
Pete Roberts thinks Smith can. Roberts, the operations manager at the youth facility, is working with Smith in a program called Streets Smarts.
Street Smarts is supposed to help young men like Smith to take a look at themselves, and identify risky thinking that prevents them from successfully transitioning to a crime-free lifestyle.
"Street Smarts is effective," Roberts said. "It's as effective as the youth want to make it. If they want to apply what we want to offer, it seems to work pretty well for them. We can put them in any environment, in any situation. But until they make the choices for themselves, that's when the changes can be made."
An environment of gangs is all Smith knows. He was raised in foster homes in Portland. Then he lived with his aunt, until she kicked him out at 14-years-old.
That's when, he said, the gang life took him in.
"They've been through a lot with me. They've had my back. They helped me out when I didn't have places to stay. They gave me clothes. They're my family." Smith said.
Yet, Smith's gang family is involved in criminal activity.
"He's a youth that works very hard to do different, but also there are some setbacks with that." said Ken Jerin, superintendent for the Rogue Valley Youth Correctional Facility. "Just like trying to change behavior. You don't always go in the right direction."
Like many of the young men held at the youth facility, Smith finds it tough to get out of gangs when they are interlaced with family and friends. However, he said he knows the real solution is to leave the gang life.
"The real thing is making the decision. To actually do it. I guess if I actually put my mind to that decision, then yeah, I can." Smith said.
It's a decision almost a hundred young adults have to make in the facility's environment before going back to a gang environment.
Although the Rogue Valley Youth Correctional Facility holds kids from all over Oregon, almost 65 percent of those are from southern Oregon.
Click here to learn more about Street Smarts.
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