Author: Ilene Lelchuk
Group brings teens together through sports
Tension in the Wilmington Boys and Girls Club gym would have been unbearable a year ago, the air electrified by suspicious stares shot across the bleachers and unspoken promises of post-game violence.
Bringing together Pacific Islander -- mostly Samoan -- teen-age boys from Carson, Compton, Paramount and Long Beach on one basketball court would have been like playing with a loaded gun. Gang warfare had fractured their community into sharp little territories defined by city borders and school allegiance.
But this spring a group of Samoan high school teachers, coaches and former professional athletes -- locals now in their late 20s who avoided gang life -- risked it.
Carson High teacher George Malauulu and others brought 250 boys together for the first All Islanders Basketball Tournament in May. It was the inaugural event of the AIGA Foundation, which uses sports to keep youths off the streets, in high school and college-bound.
AIGA, the Samoan word for family, also is the acronym for All Islands Getting Along.
"Before this tournament, there was beef, especially between Carson and Long Beach," said basketball player Willie Latu, 16, of Carson High.
After the tournament, the players hugged and exchanged phone numbers. In the stands, family members reunited with old friends from the Samoan villages they thought they left behind.
"Everyone is wondering when the next one is coming up," Latu said.
Plans for a winter game are under way, said AIGA co-founder Titus Tuiasosopo.
"We're trying to break down the walls. A lot of it is you hate the guys but you don't know the guys," he said. "When was the last time you had Paramount, Long Beach, Carson and Banning under one roof?"
Still in its infancy, AIGA also is creating a poster of top Pacific Islander high school football players who have at least a 2.0 grade-point average and will distribute it to schools in California, Hawaii and Samoa on July 4 to build Pacific Islander pride.
AIGA also held a Pacific Islander college fair Friday. And its well-connected founders will soon be circulating players' portfolios to university coaches and holding a football clinic July 17 for all ages.
"We are using sports as a vehicle to get us to the next level," Malauulu, 29, said. "Look at the (basketball) tournament we had. We had close to 250 kids in the arena instead of on the street."
AIGA's founders decided to reach the teens through sports partially because so many Samoan students are athletic -- nearly half of Carson High's varsity football team is Samoan -- and because sports is what AIGA's founders know best.
The lineup includes four high school football legends. Malauulu, now a special education teacher, graduated from Carson High and played for the University of Arizona. Arnold Ale is another Carson High star, now the school's coach, who played for Notre Dame, UCLA, and the Kansas City Chiefs among other pro teams. Ed Lalau attended Banning High and leads its football team now. Niu Sale attended Bishop Montgomery High and played football for the University of Missouri. Tuiasosopo played for USC and coached at Centennial High in Compton.
Two businessmen also joined their team: Banning High graduates McCann Utu, who played for the University of Arizona and now lives in Texas, and Pemasa Poasa of Carson.
For Malauulu, AIGA is important because he witnessed the ravages of gang warfare first hand.
Several relatives were shot during his own high school years in the 1980s, and a cousin was shot last year during a particularly ferocious flare-up of tensions between Latino and Samoan gangs. About five Samoan-dominated gangs operate in Carson.
At least four people were wounded in shootings last spring and summer. City officials at the time said the conflict stemmed from an incident at Carson High School. Some of the later confrontations took place at Scott Park, on Carson's south side, in a neighborhood were many Samoans live.
"Within a four-month period I had to shuttle kids safely to their school," Malauulu said.
Realizing that sports were what kept him out of trouble, Malauulu sought permission two years ago to open the Carson High gym two or three nights a week for students who have nowhere else to go after school.
His and AIGA's work draws high praise from the people who count -- the youths who claim these efforts are largely responsible for this year's drop in gang violence.
"The way I see it, they saved a lot of kids," said Latu, a sophomore with gang ties. "They are like guardian angels to us."
Before Malauulu and Ale, also a Carson teacher, became involved in Latu's life, he said, he skipped school and "I couldn't stop thinking about getting this guy or that guy back for doing my friend wrong."
The challenges facing Samoan teens today are complex.
Latu, who is Tongan, struggles to fit into a Pacific Islander community dominated by Samoans and Filipinos.
Many Pacific Islander youths, first generation Californians, also struggle with culture clashes with parents and grandparents born on the islands, several teens said during a recent interview at Carson High.
Samoans began migrating from the U.S. territory in the 1950s to cities with military bases, such as nearby Long Beach, after which they filtered over to Carson. It's now believed that more Samoans live in Southern California than on the island, with an estimated 10,000 in Carson.
Pacific Islander youths also combat stereotypes. The large Samoan body type leads people to assume they are bullies and gang members, some boys complained.
And peer pressure to join a gang is immense. "A lot of kids have relatives that are doing time," Malauulu said. "When they come out, seriously some of these kids look up to them. That's a big reason why we are here, to prevent any more from going outside to inside."
Money for college is another challenge.
"That's why sports is really important," said Ronnie Faavae, 17, a Carson High varsity football player.
"It's one of our tickets out of here," said Fai Satele, 17, another football player.
Tuni Simi, 16, added: "It's a big honor to a family to get a scholarship," in a culture where a person's accomplishments and failures reflect strongly on his family's reputation.
The founders of AIGA understand all this. They lived it.
"We are trying to give these kids a sense of belonging," Tuiasosopo said. "As much as the gangs will welcome them, we'll welcome them into our movement."
1) Tuni Simi, left, of the Carson Hook It Up team and Chris Tapu of the Rough Riders team wish each other luck before the championship game at the All Islanders Basketball Tournament at the Wilmington Boys and Girls Club gym in May. 2) Pacific Islander student athletes from eight high schools from Oceanside to Carson pose in Long Beach for a calendar sponsored by All Islands Get Along foundation. The students in jerseys from left to right are: Daniel Waldrop, Fitu Tu'ua, Dennis Link, Faleaufai Satele, Se'etalaluma Poumele, Sagan Atuatasi, Ao Sualua, Peter Moli, Seth Tago and Vince Feula. AIGA founders in back from left to right: Pulu Poumele, Pemasa Poasa, Titus Tuiasosopo, Ed Lalau, Arnold Ale and Niu Sale.