Colors that used to mean everything to them — red for Bloods, blue for Crips — were nowhere in sight yesterday as 14 students, many with ties to rival gangs, donned black robes and walked across a stage to get their high school diplomas.
The students, ages 16 to 19, were part of the eighth graduating class of the Adult Friends for Youth competency-based diploma program, a unique initiative aimed at helping teens linked to gangs get a chance at going to college, joining the military or getting a better-paying job.
"I made it!" said Frances Manuma-Faamu, 19, who gave birth in March to her first child. She stuck with the diploma program, though, and now plans to join the Navy.
The graduation yesterday, held at the University of Hawaii’s Campus Center Ballroom, comes as Adult Friends for Youth is seeing an increase in kids at risk for gang involvement.
The nonprofit is counseling more than 465 teens a week in group therapy sessions. The teens were referred to the group because they are at "high risk for some kind of violent behavior," said Debbie Spencer-Chun, president and chief executive officer of Adult Friends for Youth.
Last year the organization worked with about 400 kids a week. That number was at 380 in 2008.
Spencer-Chun said the economic downturn, and all the social strife it has triggered (from increases in crime to poverty), is taking a toll on youth. The Internet, she added, is also spreading gang messages to susceptible teens.
"Kids are having a harder time," she said.
Scores of family members gathered yesterday at the UH-Manoa ballroom for the ceremony, holding signs and bearing lei. The ceremony started with "The Star-Spangled Banner" and ended with the students singing Whitney Houston’s "Greatest Love of All."
"I believe the children are our future," the class sang, slightly off-key.
Adult Friends for Youth hopes success stories — like those of the 14 graduates yesterday — will convince other at-risk youth thinking about joining gangs to reconsider.
Harold Ababa, 18, is a member of the graduating class after dropping out of the program last year.
"You just gotta put your mind to it," he said.
Ababa said he is still active in the West Side Islanders gang. He is optimistic, though, about his future and plans to join the National Guard.
Junior Faatili, 21, came with other family members to watch his 16-year-old brother graduate.
He wants one day to see his brother walk across another stage — to get his college diploma.
"I’m excited," Faatili said before the ceremony started.
The competency-based diploma is a last resort for kids referred to Adult Friends for Youth. First, counselors try to keep kids in traditional schools.
And every student admitted to the diploma program is interviewed to make sure they will be able to sit in the same classroom with peers, some of whom might be from rival gangs.
Annually, there is a waiting list of 60 teens for a class with about 20 seats.
This year’s class kicked off in January, with 22 students from around Oahu. Along the way, several students gave up and dropped out. One was incarcerated. A few left to get jobs.
James "Kimo" Baker, a former state Child Protective Services worker, taught the class for the first time this year.
The former bouncer said teaching kids who are set off by the simplest things can be disconcerting at times.
"The fact that our binder comes in red upset one student," he said.
That volatility in the classroom "was the most difficult thing" — and came on top of the daunting task of taking students who in many cases test below grade level to a point where they can do 12th-grade math and reading.
Baker got through it and stuck by students who he was not always convinced were ready to put away gang violence. In some cases he knocked on doors at students’ homes to cajole them to stick with the program.
"I was born and raised in Nanakuli. I’ve seen what it’s like to grow up in a rough neighborhood," Baker said, adding that though his job is tough, it is also rewarding. "I honestly believe it’s some type of calling."