Former SLC gang members getting help to 'Stand a Little Taller'
Ernesto Perez looked with astonishment at the gun in his hand on Nov. 4, 2009. He had just fired several shots toward his girlfriend's family members of a different gang than his own but, luckily, hadn't hit anyone.
"I realized what I did," Perez said. "I packed up all my stuff and left."
He fled his Rose Park house before a SWAT team had surrounded the home. Eventually, police talked him into coming back to his home, and he was arrested but not before his picture was snapped by members of the media and published in the next day's newspaper.
Almost three years later, Perez still has those photos saved on his cellphone, showing the man he used to be: an 18-year-old gang member, with a hood pulled over his head and a serious look on his face.
But that's not the man he is now, he says, and that's because of the Stand a Little Taller program.
SALT, an anti-gang program geared to help older members, ages 18-30, leave their gang ties behind and become successful members of society, began in 2007. Kaisa Kinikini, the organization's founder, said the program grew out of a football program he started in 1999, which eventually became the Stripling Warriorz, a semi-pro team that played in the Rocky Mountain Football League.
Members of rival gangs in the Glendale and Rose Park area would gather after school to play ball, giving them a distraction from the gang life that consumed them.
"For those three hours, I saw a difference," Kinikini said. "Enemies were playing with each other. For three hours, they forgot they were a part of a gang."
Most gang members left their high school football programs after dropping out of school or running into legal problems. The SALT program allowed them a second chance to play football, and through the years, at least 24 of those players earned sports scholarships to junior colleges or universities.
Now, the program has grown to not only include sports programs, but assists in helping clients earn their GED, clear warrants and weave their way through the legal system, take court-ordered improvement classes and obtain employment.
Though most participants in the SALT program initially belonged to Tongan gangs, Kinikini said they now serve clients from any Salt Lake City gang, including Hispanic gangs and Juggalos, fans of the music group Insane Clown Posse who police classify as a gang.
For Perez, now 20, his journey with SALT began two years ago. After his seventh trip to jail before his 19th birthday mostly for misdemeanor alcohol and domestic-violence issues Perez said he was growing tired of the gang lifestyle.
"I was just getting fed up," he said. "All this time I just wanted to have fun. It always ended up in the hospital or in jail."
Perez was born and raised in the Rose Park neighborhood of Salt Lake City, and his gang involvement began when he was around 15 years old. He hung around gang members, but it wasn't until he finished high school that he began doing beer runs and becoming more heavily involved in the lifestyle. He was never jumped into the gang, but was getting in trouble because of his affiliations.
Perez's father told him about the SALT program, and after he was bailed out of jail that seventh time, he met Kinikini, also a former gang member, for the first time. After assessing Perez's needs which included future anger healing classes Kinikini told the then-18-year-old Perez that the next time he found himself in trouble, give him a call.
"I saw on his face, he doesn't like being in jail," Kinikini recalled about their first meeting. "I saw a goodness in somebody. Everyone can change. All of us need a push sometimes."
A week later, Perez found himself calling Kinikini because he was drunk at a party and needed a ride. No one in his family answered their phone, and while going through the list of contacts on his cellphone, he came across Kinikini's name.
"He showed up," Perez said. "I was really surprised."
Perez called Kinikini on several other occasions when he was drunk and needed a ride. During those car rides, a bond began to form between the two men, who both struggled with leaving their gang lives behind.
Kinikini said he was trying to show Perez that someone cared about him. That made the difference for Kinikini, he said, when he left the Tongan Crip Gang 17 years earlier.
"[Those] are the ingredients that helped me change my life," he said.
Kinikini said when he was heavily involved with TCG, only two people outside his family showed him love: his football coach and his ex-wife's mother.
"The only time people were nice to me was because of football," he said.
Kinikini was 16 when his then-girlfriend brought him to meet her mother one day while they were in high school. He said that despite his intimidating looks and "gangster haircut," the woman started a conversation with him. She made him a plate of spaghetti. She showed him that she cared.
"She knew I wasn't this big gangster guy," he said.
It's that same caring nature that he tries to bring to Perez and all of the SALT clients.
And to Abbie Vianes, a board member of SALT who works directing the Salt Lake City mayor's substance abuse prevention coalition, it's that caring nature and Kinikini's dedication to attend the clients' court hearings and help with their legal issues that makes the program different than others.
"To have someone like Kaisa who cares so deeply, that's what makes SALT absolutely unique," Vianes said.
Vianes said she has been working with SALT for the past three or four years, her primary role being to teach anger healing and other classes to clients. She offers the court-ordered classes at lower rates, hoping that money won't be a blockade to the clients' successes.
"My core values are to help people obtain their greatest potential," she said. "I believe knowledge can really help people to think better, do better."
Through the years, Kinikini has gained community partners who have helped with services or donated to the program. SALT has applied for no government grants yet, Kinikini said, and all of their services are a product of fundraising or donations. Kinikini works the program full-time, but does not take home a paycheck.
Kinikini said that while they have thus far worked to offer their services for free to their 60 clients, that may soon change as they continue to accept more clients.
Gary Walton, owner of Beehive Bail Bonds, was one who offered help to the anti-gang program early on by donating money to buy jerseys for the football program. He said many family members of SALT clients Perez's included have come to his office to bail their sons out of jail. Oftentimes, he has forgiven the fees associated with their bail bonds, because they are members of the program and are working to make their lives better.
"If it helps one misguided youth get away from the shadows of his past, I'm down with it," Walton said.
Kinikini said that while the program has seen successes, not everyone continues in the program or keeps their life on the straight and narrow.
Perez said he was one of those who messed up along the way during his two-year journey through the program, but he said he is in a better place now. He works full-time at a roofing company, he is paying off his probation fines, and he is trying to live a happy life with his girlfriend and their 2-year-old son.
"Now they are seeing change in me," he said. "I'm trying to work on myself."
Stand a Little Taller
Kaisa Kinikini and the SALT volunteers can be reached at 801-882-5200.