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SALT LAKE CITY -- Leaving a life of crime and violence is a difficult challenge for those who live and die on the street. But for some, like 19-year-old Lalo Hongphakdy, all it takes is a little football.
"I was like, ‘Alright,' because I was ready to play football," Hongphakdy said.
Hongphakdy is now a former member of the Tiny Oriental Posse, the gang his own father helped create and lead. He says he got used to the gang lifestyle because that's all he ever knew.
By the age of 17, Hongphakdy was fully involved, but he soon fought and shot himself into jail. "I was going to get locked up a lot more times for the same things, so I thought, ‘You might as well go through with it. It's just the lifestyle. If you want to gang bang, you've got to do it to the fullest. If not, you might as well not bang,'" he said.
That was the road Hongphakdy was headed down until his father, the man who helped start a gang, convinced him to join the Warriorz football team.
The team is run by the Stand a Little Taller (SALT)program, which uses sports to get people off the streets and onto a promising life path.
"It teaches them teamwork, to forget about themselves, to sacrifice themselves for others and for their teammates. When we teach them that, they're ready for life," said Kaisa Kinikini, executive director of SALT.
Kinikini, a former gang member himself, has been working tirelessly for several years to make SALT a staple in the community. He and his colleagues have expanded the program from football, adding rugby, boxing and soccer to the mix.
The diversity in sports has helped SALT reach a diverse group of people including Polynesians, Asians and Hispanics. "We strive to get as many kids off the street as we can to give them an alternative to being on the street or gangs or anything of that nature," said Jorge Alvarez, director of SALT soccer.
Alvarez works with Utah United, a soccer league here in the state. Players on the team are not all gang members; many have been playing soccer on sanctioned teams their entire lives.
Walter Cano, the team' captain, says he never thought soccer would be a sport gang members would want to play, but he's glad they are.
"When they come to the team you just have to make them feel comfortable. That's when everything starts. That's when your friendship starts," Cano said. "There is a time that you have to give opportunity to everybody else, and that's what we're here for, to help others."
Cano and his teammates say they've been humbled by their experiences, which have taught them, among other things, to not judge people. It's a lesson he and others with SALT hope the community wants to learn as well.
That's one of the reasons they held a fundraiser at the Gallivan Center Friday night; the other is to raise much-needed money for SALT.
"We don't even have a Web site. That's how poor we are," Kinikini joked. "We need help financially to run the program, to run it where we need it, to help these guys find jobs and so forth, and to have staff that can stay and help. Right now it's all volunteer."
In addition to staff, Kinikini says SALT also needs money to keep its sports programs up and running so that people like Hongphakdy can have a good influence in their lives.
"Three weeks ago, I thought I was going to play football and go back to West Valley to do what I do, banging," Hongphakdy said. "But now I guess I'm just going to be here playing football, supporting the program."
SALT's fundraiser runs until 10 p.m. Friday night at the Gallivan Center. If you can't make it, but would still like to donate, there's a fund set up at any Zion's Bank. Just mention SALT.
If you would like to contact SALT, you can do so by phone at 801-264-9044.