A city official told local youths at a Christian convention that they can choose what path their lives will take.
The No. 1 reason young people get involved in gangs is because they are looking for a sense of belonging and family, a city official said Saturday.
"It's hard to get them out because they give them more responsibility and opportunity than we do as adults," said Rod Bremby, assistant city manager.
Bremby was among several community leaders attending the Youth Christian Convention Saturday at First Christian Church.
The convention -- which featured several speakers who touched on the problems of substance abuse, illiteracy, police-community relations, sexuality and AIDS -- drew about a dozen youths and several church and community leaders.
Bremby, who spoke about gangs, crime and violence, defined gangs as three or more people who, as one of their activities, go out and commit crimes. Congressional figures estimate there are somewhere between 4,800 and 9,000 gangs, with 240,000 to 400,000 member in 700 cities throughout the country, including Lawrence, Bremby said.
"I would say to those who ask if they are here, why wouldn't they be here?" Bremby said after the speech. "There are groups that we can readily identify that do operate in Lawrence." Police have seen groups of youth who participate in criminal activity, such as committing property crimes and painting graffiti.
"Why a lot of people think that things are just fine is that we haven't seen the horrific increase in violence. But that doesn't happen overnight," he said.
Gang members come from all socioeconomic backgrounds, he said. Youths whose backgrounds include several risk factors, however, are more to join a gang. Those factors are: Having a single parent, being a black male, being a truant and being in a violent home environment.
Most communities go through several stages when gangs come to their cities, including denial followed by overreacting -- including the idea that gang members can be recognized merely by the clothing they wear, he said.
He said many youths think they can jump into a gang and then jump out any time they want, which is not true.
Even hanging around gang members is dangerous -- you can get shot by someone taking aim at a gang member, he said.
Bremby told the youths that to be a success, they need to first be a success in their own minds. They also need to make a commitment to what they want to become later, although they can still change their minds.
He urged the youths to cooperate with others and to continue to renew themselves physically by keeping active and mentally by reading.
He also told them to continue to be social while seeking their goals. And he urged them to have a spiritual life.
"You need to believe in something greater than yourself," he said.