Brandon Fiame is a 14-year-old from Salt Lake City. He could have gone to a basketball game Saturday, but he spent his morning and afternoon at the Hilton Salt Lake City Center learning how to avoid joining a gang.
Bishops from the 20 or so Salt Lake-area Tongan wards of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints invited families from their congregations to the first Pacific Islander Gang Conference.
Fiame's was one of those families. And missing a basketball game for information that will keep him out of a gang was worth it to him.
Of the 4,626 documented gang members in Utah, 604, or 13 percent, are Pacific Islanders, said Isileli Tausinga of Salt Lake City Police Department's homeland security division.
Gang-related crimes have increased over past years, he said. In 2003, there were 1,538, up from 1,252 in 2002.
Though an estimated 1.1 percent of Utah's population is Pacific Islander, 1.6 percent of the state's prison population is Pacific Islander.
"If we do not help our youth today, we will fear them tomorrow," Tausinga said.
During the conference, which was organized by the Pacific Islander Advisory Council, parents and their children joined separate breakout classes to discuss gang characteristics, latest gang trends, cultural identity and to hear from former gang members.
While parents learned about recognizing signs of gang activity in their children, the children learned from Maile Kinikini, who joined a gang in the third grade and became one of the gang's leaders at age 14. He has since served jail time and cleaned up his act.
Fiame said he learned gangs won't help him in the future.
Parents were told children join gangs because they feel gangs will provide them with a sense of family, self-esteem and accomplishment.
But parents should learn to provide those things, said keynote speaker Vai Sikahema, a former Brigham Young University running back who went pro and played with the Arizona Cardinals, Green Bay Packers and Philadelphia Eagles.
Because the Polynesian culture values humility so much, he said, parents often neglect to give children adequate praise for their accomplishments, which can cause children to resent parents.
Sikahema had some advice: "Admonish privately. Praise publicly."
He said Pacific Islanders can strike the delicate balance between their native culture and the American culture by preserving their heritage and by getting educated.
"One of the ways we preserve our heritage is by speaking our language," he said.
The football-player-turned-broadcaster recalled for the 170 people present how his parents made him speak Tongan at home despite living in the United States and how he hated it. But now he is grateful that can still speak Tongan fluently.
Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who attended the opening of the conference with wife Mary Kaye, said each of the youth in attendance has a genius inside.3 comments on this story
"Not everyone discovers that by the time they die, and that's sad to me," he said.He urged the youth to find a hero in society and to learn to serve their communities.