HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Do you think that Hawaii has a street gang problem? You might be surprised by how many street gangs law enforcement officers recently identified across the state.
One agency working with youth gang members says its efforts have helped to reduce violent gang activity in recent years. But the group says that's led to complacency by those who feel Hawaii doesn't have a gang problem.
Mo Maumalanga greets people at Kanoa Park with a smile and a handshake. He asks them if they're staying out of trouble. He asks them if they need anything.
"Just love helping in general," he said. "But that's way different from what I was back then."
Back then, as a gang member trying to maintain his street cred, Maumalanga went after anyone who challenged him.
"For us, we didn't see living past 18," he said. "So it was either me or them."
Growing up in a low-income neighborhood in Kalihi, it was the only life he knew.
"This was known for gangs, drugs, violence," he said about his old neighborhood. "So when I open up my front door, that's all I saw."
"These kids felt that there was no hope," Sid Rosen, Adult Friends for Youth, said. "They saw their lives either ending up in prison or they saw themselves dead."
Jane Tampon's heart is racing, as she returns to the place where it all began.
"My brother's rival gang was standing at this corner," she recalled. "They would wait for me and they knew I would come off the bus. They would, because they couldn't reach my brother, they would get me. They would throw beer bottles and spit and call me names."
A child of divorce, she discovered a sense of family in her brother's street gang.
"That's how I became involved," she said. "A lot of his enemies became my enemies."
Mo and Jane were members of rival gangs, and saw their share of turf battles.
"There was a lot of drive-by shootings here," Maumalanga said. "I had a friend who was shot. We were playing basketball. He got shot with a shotgun. He lived but, in those days, retaliation is a must."
The two finally walked away from the gang lifestyle thanks to Adult Friends for Youth, an agency that's credited with reducing gang violence by using long-term, re-directional therapy.
"It's hard to say, you know, the best thing to do is break them up because that's not, you can't break up a family," Debbie Spencer-Chun, Adult Friends for Youth, said. "The reality is to work with the groups as a whole entity and have the gangs look at moving from destructive to constructive behaviors."
According to an October 2010 gang assessment report, "Gang membership in Hawaii is becoming widespread among urban youth and adults." The report identified 129 street gangs involving about 500 members across the state.
"By and large, the problem has been hidden from public view," Rosen said. "Every now and again, there's an incident and then people become aware that there is a gang problem. Then it kind of dies off. People have short attention spans."
Instead of trying to cover up the problem, Farrington High is addressing it head-on. The school has identified more than 20 different gangs on campus.
"If we don't acknowledge that our students join gangs for certain reasons, whether it's at home or their lives, then it spills out into the communities," Ronald Oyama, Farrington High vice principal, said.
Farrington is not alone.
"Over at Waipahu, the kids have told us that, you know, more than half are somehow gang-related," Spencer-Chun said.
School officials watch for possible gang behavior, whether it's a hand gesture, the display of a colored rag, or a simple stare-down.
"When they get challenged, they're not going to back down," Oyama said. "So a lot of things that we're, what the administration is concerned about is the fighting, the welfare of every student on our campus."
Former gang members Mo and Jane now work for Adult Friends for Youth, helping with mediation and other services.
Mo went from tackling his rivals to tackling the books. He earned a master's degree in social work.
"With 110-percent, I go out to work and try to give the type of kids we work with the same chance that was given to me," he said.
He says the intervention must continue since Honolulu has all the ingredients for a gang uprising.
"If you interview a gang kid from LA and you interview a gang kid (from Hawaii), you know, the feelings, the emotions, everything is the same," Maumalanga said. "All these kids in Hawaii need is for one leader to say, okay, we'll take it up a notch."
Adult Friends for Youth says its behind-the-scenes work has been hampered by funding cuts.
"If society decides, well, you know, we can't spend money on these things anymore, then the end product is the problems are only going to get worse," Rosen said.