The kids of the Radical Youth Invasion look like many other groups of teenagers in the Salt Lake Valley. They wear big black T-shirts, baggy blue jeans, Air-walk tennis shoes and sport the tell-tale angular haircuts, goatees and beaded jewelry of their generation.
What makes them "radicals" is the message that they take to their peers: There is a choice when it comes to drug and alcohol use, suicide and gang involvement: You can say no.They present that message at school assemblies across Utah in a "radical" fashion - using mime set to music, dramatic skits and acts of physical strength, such as ripping phone books in half and breaking a stack of bricks and bending steel rebar with their bare hands to drive their message home.
"We're trying to open the door to their minds and to their hearts to where we can begin to talk straight with them about their choices," said Ron Colbert, youth pastor at Valley Assembly of God Church in West Valley, where Radical Youth Invasion (RYI) is based. "They need to make the decisions then, in that assembly, to make the choice. Out on the street hanging with their friends is not the time to be making those decisions."
This week, RYI gave sample performances of their one-hour assembly for participants in the 1998 Utah Gang Conference at the Salt Lake Hilton.
RYI was formed in 1994, an offshoot of a nationwide program that began in Arizona. About 30 area kids between the ages of 12 and 19 are in the group. A handful are in their early 20s.
Some are the quintessential church-going "good kids" who have never been in trouble. But others are like 21-year-old Andres Ramos, a self-described former "gang banger" who hit rock bottom one day and decided to change his life.
"I got involved in gangs when I was 11 or 12 with a couple of my cousins. It was sort of a family thing," said Ramos, who has been part of the RYI team for about eight months. "I've done a lot of bad things in my life. I was car jacking, selling drugs. At first, it was fun. There was an adrenaline rush. But as we got older, the situations we got in got progressively worse, more dangerous."
At 17, Ramos spent some time sitting in a jail cell after his mother turned him in to police. That's when he decided to start using his experiences to keep other kids, including his younger brothers and sister, on a straight and narrow path.
RYI is part of that effort and Ramos and others in the group know that what they do makes a difference. The message is getting through.
"You can tell by the kids that come up to you after," Ramos said. "I think it works because it's not some sugar-coated message. It's real. I try to tell them this is not some game. You can die from it. Your family's going to suffer for it, or eventually, you will lose someone close to you."
Terry Van Winkle will attest to the effectiveness of the RYI program. A year ago, RYI performed for the 1,450 students at Eisenhower Junior High in Taylorsville, where Van Winkle is the assistant principal.
"Some kids left in tears. Some wouldn't leave," said Van Winkle, whose videotaped praise of the assembly is part of a new promotional video for the group. "They really got the students involved and their message relates to what some of our kids are going through. I think when you hear from your peers, it has much more influence than when it comes from an adult."
RYI makes about 20 performances a year at local high schools and has traveled across Utah and to Colorado with its message, Colbert said. Each year the program is more popular and more in demand. And working with RYI is a gratifying experience, he said.
"When you go back to a school and a kid comes up and says `Thank you for coming last year. I was headed down the road to drugs or gangs, but I got out because of you.' Then you know you're making a difference," Colbert said.