Joseph Jennings did what most fathers do with their sons - he tried to teach him to be a man. After all, that's what his father did.

Through example, Jennings taught his son to drink and take drugs. He also showed him that violence was the answer to most if not all problems.Those were his boyhood memories.

His father taught him to fight by pushing the family's furniture out of the way and sending one of his eight brothers at him until he was too tired or too beaten to continue.

He watched his father beat his alcoholic mother until he'd done permanent damage. He watched him sneak into the children's room at night and rape his sister. Jennings grew up in violence and pain, and he thought it was the way things were supposed to be.

"They (troubled youths) think their lifestyle is normal," Jennings told those attending the state's eighth annual Gang Conference Wednesday. "They've bought that lie."

It was a lie Jennings found himself believing and then living, even after being shot 13 times and having eight children with five women. It was a lie he found his children were still living, even after he'd reformed himself and changed his own life.

After being a drug-addicted gangster for 14 years, there are many crimes Jennings has committed. But the worst, he said, was against a boy named James.

James is his son and three months after he'd been released from a juvenile prison, James killed a man who tried to rape him after they got high on marijuana.

"He's locked up for a long time because he wanted to be like his father," he said. "The first hero our children are going to see is their parents."

He said teens turn to gangs for several reasons, among them is an attempt to find identity, protection and fellowship.

"Some of them have never been loved," he said. "They don't understand the concept of love."

Many young people are told they are worthless garbage, if not directly, then through neglect.

"If we have a generation of people who hate themselves, how can we expect them to love other people?" he said. "We have a generation of kids who don't care about being dead."

Jennings heard those things about himself as a boy. He knew just one adult - a school teacher - during all of his youth who told him something different.

"When everyone else was saying I was nothing, he said I was special," he said. "Sixteen years later, I called him on the phone and said thank you. . . . Good kids don't just happen."

Jennings was the keynote speaker at the Gang Conference. The two-day gathering features presenters from local police agencies and groups, as well as speakers from other states.

He travels the country talking to people about gang problems and said he's realized three things.

"There is no silver bullet," he said. "Kids are all the same . . . and one person can make a difference."

The conference consists of workshops and speeches aimed to help participants understand and combat the growing gang problems.

In early days of the statewide gang conference, one could walk in off the street and sign up for workshops anytime during the event. There was always room and sections were rarely full.

Eight years later, it's standing room only, no waiting lists and if you didn't send your registration form in weeks ago, you're not going to get into anything - not even the parking lot.

About 200 people attended the state's first gang conference in 1990, according to Michelle Arciaga the Salt Lake Metro Gang Project's community coordinator.

This year organizers have 730 people registered - many from out of state.

"We've pretty much maxed out the hotel," Arciaga said. Organizers could have sold more seats but wanted to keep the crowd manageable and the quality high.

Arciaga said it's the quality of the conference that's made it such a draw. About half of those who attend are law enforcement officers. The others come from courts, youth corrections, education and "pretty much any field you can imagine that works with kids," she said.

Wednesday night there is a free session for residents who volunteer their time.