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Taylorsville Journal

Kids shown alternatives to violence, crime during third annual International Gang Awareness Night

Oct 31, 2018 03:44PM ● By Jana Klopsch

Several teams of fifth- through eighth-grade students participated in 3-on-3 basketball tournaments as part of International Gang Awareness Night in Taylorsville. (choosegangfree.com)

By Carl Fauver | carlf@mycityjournals.com

Andrea Atencio-Valdez admits, she was a “small time gang banger” while attending Salt Lake’s West High School in 2001 to 2004. And she says her boyfriend then — now husband, Jerry Valdez — was even worse.

“My dad was a cop, but that still didn’t stop me from being interested in the gang lifestyle,” she said. “But times change, my husband and I have changed, and now we both want to help kids, including our own, to stay off the gang path all together.”

Fourteen years after graduating from West, Atencio-Valdez is now program manager for a group called Choose Gang Free. She is a civilian employee of the Unified Police Department.

After working his way clear of juvenile legal entanglements, her husband began a law enforcement career as a corrections officer at the Salt Lake County Jail. Now Jerry Valdez is part of the department’s Metro Gang Unit.

“We were lucky to get our lives turned around before it was too late,” Atencio-Valdez said. “But it’s such a challenge for young people. That’s why we both dedicate so much time to trying to help kids avoid the gang lifestyle to begin with.”

And she adds, young people today face even bigger challenges — at younger ages — than she ever did.

“Gangs are targeting kids at a much younger age than when I was in school,” Atencio-Valdez said. “By the time they are in fifth grade, many Utah kids have already been approached by someone trying to get them involved. That’s why the focus of International Gang Awareness Night is on fifth- through eighth-graders.” 

Previous Salt Lake Valley gang awareness nights were held in Glendale and Midvale. Atencio-Valdez said they were successful, but not as big as she had hoped.

“This year, we held 3-on-3 basketball tournaments for both boys and girls in fifth through eighth grades,” she said. “About 75 to 80 kids participated the first day, in games played outside Taylorsville City Hall. Then the championship games were played two nights later at Valley Regional Park as a part of International Gang Awareness Night.”

Many other activities also drew an estimated 250 to 300 people to the event, including Unified Police K9 demonstrations, a climbing wall, free food and information booths with lots of giveaway items.

To get assistance with the event, Atencio-Valdez turned to someone she knew would not let her down.

“My dad, Isaac Atencio, retired two years ago from the Salt Lake City Police Department after a 27-year career,” Atencio-Valdez said. “He is now president of the Utah Gang Investigators Association. I asked him if they would help out and he quickly volunteered.”

“The Utah Gang Investigators Association provides ongoing information and education to police officers conducting gang probes,” Isaac Atencio said. “We are a nonprofit service organization also involved in fundraising to support Choose Gang Free and other worthwhile groups. We have helped fundraise and have assisted in securing meals, clothing and toiletries to families in need. So, we were happy to help with International Gang Awareness Night.”

Other donors who made the night a success included: Sizzling Platter, Lending a Hand, Little Caesars Pizza, Bimbo Bakeries and Shasta Soda. The Barber School, based in Midvale, also had students and instructors on hand to provide free haircuts throughout the event.

“It was amazing how many donations we received,” Atencio-Valdez said. “So many different businesses clearly see the importance of working to keep kids out of gangs.”

The event was such a success this year, Fox 13 News also covered it.

“I am extremely proud of Andrea,” said her father Isaac. “When she was younger, I was so busy working as a cop, I couldn’t stop her as she began to get involved with gang activity. All three of my daughters dabbled in it, while my son was able to steer clear. Now she finds herself in the same place I was: working to keep her kids away from gangs.”

Andrea and Jerry have sons ages 14 and 11, along with a 3-year-old daughter.

“They are a big reason why my husband and I do this,” she said. “We don’t want them to face the same tough choices we had.”

Choose Gang Free has nine full- and two part-time employees who also organize anti-gang activities and educational programs at area schools. More information is available about the organization at  HYPERLINK "http://www.choosegangfree.com" choosegangfree.com.

“I would not have wanted to deal with me back when I was involved with gangs,” Atencio-Valdez said. “Hopefully, through the work we are doing, fewer Utah parents will have to address that challenge in the future.”


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